Anthony Wentworth was groomed to be the duke since the day his older brother abandoned England for America. He even has a written decree from his father disowning the older son. But no one, especially his older brother Derek, seems to care. It’s bad enough that Anthony must sit by and watch Derek take control of the dukedom, but what’s worse is knowing Derek might have been right when he said Anthony hadn’t the experience or knowledge to manage their affairs. So when his stepfather gives him a valuable brooch and the name of a man who will pay a fortune for it, Anthony decides to sell the brooch and use the money to build a fortune of his own. Neither Anthony nor his stepfather knows that the brooch is one-half of a key that some men are willing to kill for.
“Your fortune lies in Browley. Danger is all around.” Those were her mother’s last words, spoken as she pressed an odd-looking key into Clara Campbell’s hand. Promising her mother that she will seek out a Mr. Osborne, Clara goes to Browley, only to find Mr. Osborne gone, and dangerous men awaiting his return. Now another man has come looking—this one a gentleman, too charming to be trusted and too smart to be ignored. For it doesn’t take Lord Anthony long to figure out that Browley is no ordinary town, and Clara no ordinary barmaid.
Now the race is on between Clara and Anthony to see who can solve the puzzle first, neither is above seducing the other to secure the fortune. But when Clara is kidnapped, along with her key, he must decide if a man’s fortune lies in material goods or that which is in his heart.
“Your fortune lies in Browley. Danger is all around.” Clara Campbell’s mother whispered the words, her strength ebbing with each ragged breath.
“Mama, please don’t speak,” Clara urged, trying to keep the terror that streaked through her from sounding in her voice. “You must save your strength. Lizzy has run for a doctor; he will arrive at any moment.”
She had little hope the doctor would arrive in time, if their maid was lucky enough to find one in the tiny village they’d arrived at just that morning. Though Cassie had done her best to staunch the blood that had been flowing freely from the stab wounds when she found her mother lying injured on the floor, the large pool of blood she knelt in was enough for her to know that her mother was too far gone to live much longer.
She stifled her impending sobs, not wanting to deepen her mother’s despair during these last moments of her life. “You needn’t say more,” she said, gently squeezing her mother’s cold hand. “I remember everything you’ve told me, and I’ll go to Browley as soon as I’ve seen to your comfort.”
“No … now. Danger here. Must go now. Promise.” The last word was barely a gurgle, but her mother clung to life, pleading with her eyes, awaiting the answer that Clara knew she must give if her mother was to die in peace.
“I promise, Mama. I promise I will go now and I will be on guard wherever I am. I will be safe, and I will have what is rightfully mine. I give you my word.”
The mask of anguish and fear that had claimed her mother’s face dissolved, leaving behind only the worry lines that had made their first appearance twelve years earlier, when she’d been forced to flee in the night with her child and her maid or else risk death at the hands of the maniac who had killed her husband.
Seconds later her body shuddered and then stilled, and Clara knew she was gone.
Be careful what you wish for.
Lord Anthony Wentworth had heard the saying often enough but he never gave it a thought until now.
When Anthony was just nine years of age, his brother Jon, older by five years and idolized by Anthony, was sent to America to finish his schooling. Anthony remembered everything about that day, for it seemed his entire world had come to an abrupt and terrible end.
He hadn’t been allowed to see Jon off on his voyage. No one had, not even his mother, who, for the only time that Anthony could recall, had railed against her husband to the point of calling him a cur. That his father, the Duke of Dorrington, was as far from an inferior mongrel as a man could be, did not seem to give his mother a moment’s pause. Nor did it keep her from delivering the string of aspersions she cast upon his character during what she thought was a private argument. As to that, it was only natural she would assume their conversation was private. Jon was locked in his room, and Anthony, who never disobeyed his parents, was supposed to be in his.
But he wasn’t. The entire set of bewildering circumstances that surrounded Jon’s coming home from Eton in disgrace, his subsequent antics at a ball hosted by their parents but two days after his return, and, finally, a scandal of some sort involving Jon, a widow named Lady Danders, the widow’s horrified mother-in-law, and, oddly enough, a bear-skin rug in front of Lady Danders’ drawing room fireplace, had resulted in Anthony’s first act of disobedience.
He simply had to know what was going on.
He got more than he bargained for. Well, less when it came to finding out about Jon’s misdeeds and punishment, but definitely more when it came to his knowledge of the relationship between his parents. Before his mother could finish spewing the words she’d evidently been storing up for some time, Anthony heard a resounding smack, his mother’s startled cry, and then a thud against the wall, followed by a dull scraping sound that trailed downward. Somehow he knew it was the sound of his mother’s body sliding down the wall. He raced to his room with his pulse pounding in his ears, jumped into bed fully dressed, and pulled the covers over his head. And that’s when he decided that the world as he knew it had come to an end.
He’d later stood at the window, desolate and forlorn, watching Jon climb into the black lacquered family carriage without looking back. Never mind that Jon didn’t give him a second glance most days. Anthony had a burning case of hero worship. And so, almost daily for the next ten years, Anthony wished most fervently that Jon would come home.
Unfortunately, he’d gotten what he wished for. It did not seem to matter that he hadn’t wished it for the last four years of Jon’s absence, or for the two since Jon’s return, for Jon, who no longer went by Jonathan, but rather, by his middle name, Derek, now sat behind the heavy oak desk in a chair that Anthony had imagined might one day be his.
Derek’s crisp white shirt and navy superfine waistcoat were of the finest cloth, his cravat, simple as always, but expertly tied. A long finger of one well-manicured hand bore their father’s ring; on the other hand was a wide gold band sporting a ruby surrounded by small diamonds—his wedding ring, a gift from his wife, Lucy. He’d cut his shoulder-length dark hair upon his return from what everyone referred to as Derek’s masquerade, the adventurous undertaking being just one more outrageous escapade Derek had managed to turn around to his benefit, much like his banishment from England. He’d left for America in a cloud of ignominy but stayed on after his education, founding a shipbuilding company that became not only wildly successful, but was perhaps the world’s foremost in designing the sleekest, fastest ships. Then he used those ships in his daring masquerade, where he’d pretended to be an American privateer in order to infiltrate a treasonous smuggling gang. Anthony knew the scheme had not turned out as planned, but Derek returned to Dorrington a hero just the same.
It was this sort of falderal that irritated Anthony the most. Derek took on ridiculous challenges and through sheer luck made them work, but what about Anthony? He hadn’t abandoned England. He hadn’t played at a game that got people killed. He’d even served in the Army until his father needed him at home. Yet did anyone think him a hero? No. He was dull Anthony, dependable Anthony.
But no more.
Derek finished rapping off orders to his secretary, James Curtis, who had been chosen from some thirty applicants for the job shortly after Derek assumed their father’s title. Curtis was a man of medium build, with brown hair and regular features whose air of quiet assurance was supported by his high intelligence. It was the man’s very bearing that aggravated Anthony now, for Curtis stood, not in front of the desk as anyone else of inferior birth would do, but behind the desk to Derek’s right, as if to shout to Anthony, “I’m his right arm, not you. I’m the one he trusted to meet with his managers and solicitors, to make the decisions while he was away.” It was one more pebble in Anthony’s boot. A boulder, really.
His business complete, Derek’s silvery gaze switched to Anthony, who held it steadily, waiting for Derek to speak. Derek called the meeting, after all. Or, rather, he had requested Anthony’s presence in the study, the way he always requested Anthony’s presence when he was about to offer up some mandate as though it were just a suggestion. Silence prevailed until Curtis closed the door behind him.
“The Marquess of Hammerly has expressed an interest in aligning our families,” Derek said with an impassive expression. “As you no doubt know, his estate in Kent borders ours there and he plans to settle it upon his daughter, Penelope, who is of an age to marry. It’s an advantageous match—for both you and the family. The two estates together will control eighty percent of the wool production in the area.”
“Then it’s a pity I’m not interested in raising sheep,” Anthony replied coolly, making an effort to control the muscle in his jaw, which had begun to twitch. “And I’m not interested in Lady Penelope either.”
Derek’s right eyebrow shot up as it always did when he gave a quasi-command and the recipient didn’t immediately change the course of his life to carry it out. Anthony had seen the expression often since Derek returned. So had their younger sister, Tessa, who had resorted to calling Derek “the brow” behind his back, so annoyed was she with Derek’s interference in her life. The first time Anthony encountered the supercilious stare, he’d been properly intimidated. Not anymore. He stared back with an expression that was as bored as he could muster and waited for Derek’s rejoinder. He didn’t have to wait long.
“You’re five and twenty, Anthony. It’s time you took up some kind of life. A real life, one with responsibilities. You can’t skulk around Dorrington forever.”
Anthony felt a hot flush of anger creep up the back of his neck but he tamped down his emotions. Derek would remain cool and collected throughout the meeting. He must too.
“I’d like nothing better than taking up a real life with responsibilities. Shall I help you pack?”
“I’m not going anywhere,” Derek said as he settled back in his chair. He rested his elbows on the arms and steepled his fingers, his gaze unflinching. “This is where I belong. I’m the Duke of Dorrington and you are the second son. It’s past time you accepted that fact.”
Anthony stared at the brother who had come to represent everything about life that was unfair. Derek was right. It was past time, not for Anthony to accept things as they were, but to take what was rightfully his. He pushed himself out of his chair and strolled to the window, pretending to stare out at the dark, rolling hills in the distance, the copse of evergreen trees at midpoint, and the lake not one hundred meters away that shimmered in the morning sunlight. It was one of his favorite views from the house, and under normal circumstances the sight would bring him peace, soothing away his troubled thoughts. But these weren’t normal circumstances. He was about to say things that could not be taken back, things that would forever change his relationship with his brother.
He turned around to face Derek, glad he had stood. Towering over one’s adversary had its advantages, though the greater advantage would always be with the one who sat behind the heavy oak desk.
“You were never meant to be the duke,” he said flatly. “You know that, don’t you?”
A shadow of something flashed in Derek’s eyes but then it was gone, leaving Anthony to wonder if he had imagined it.
“If you mean that father hoped I’d abdicated, I’m not surprised. There was no love lost between us.”
“No love lost?” Anthony scoffed. “He couldn’t stand the thought of you taking his place. He planned to disown you, and I have the proof in writing—a decree written in his own hand. Would you like to know what it says?”
“It doesn’t matter what it says,” Derek returned softly. “It isn’t a legal instrument.”
“It matters to me. He expected me to take his place. After you abandoned England, he taught me everything he knew in preparation for my taking his place.”
Derek shook his head in a pitying gesture that made Anthony want to leap across the desk and pummel him.
“Everything he knew?” Derek asked. “Exactly what did that entail? When I took over, we were close to ruin.” He pulled open the top drawer of his desk and lifted out a ledger. He flipped through some pages and finding what he wanted, spun it around and gave it a shove. It stopped, aligned perfectly with the edge of the desk. For an absurd moment Anthony wondered if Derek had practiced the action to get it just right, certain that if he had attempted the maneuver, the journal would either have stopped short or toppled over the edge. But no, as with everything else Derek did, this simple act was carried out to perfection with sheer luck.
“Go on, take a look,” Derek urged. “It’s the balance sheet of all our holdings at the time I returned. With the extravagant expenses being incurred on eight estates and barely an income from any of them, we couldn’t have held on another year without retrenching. What did he teach you, Anthony? To chain the hands of the estate managers while pretending that everything was fine? Because I can’t see that anything else was going on for the past five years. He didn’t initial any of the estates’ books during that time. Did he even inspect them? Or don’t you know?”
Anthony opened his mouth, wanting to give a sarcastic reply, but he had none to give. What Derek said was true. Their father called Anthony home from the Army, insisting he needed Anthony’s help managing the estates, yet the only thing he seemed to need was an audience, someone to listen to his ranting about traitors and smugglers and working for the Crown to uncover treason. Yet Anthony never saw evidence that their father had been employed in that capacity. But how could he say so to Derek? Especially when Derek had taken over their father’s investigation and proven it true?
“You know damn well he was preoccupied,” Anthony bit out.
“And so was I,” said Derek smoothly, resting back in his chair once again. “I was preoccupied with closing up my business in America, selling my estate there—and bringing my ships to England—but I let none of that interfere with saving the family fortune. I traveled to every estate, replaced or supported the managers, inspected machinery, restored the work forces, worked with land stewards to decide what should be planted and when, all of this to ensure that the income we should have been receiving all along was once again in place. I cut our losses in the unwise investments Father made and put our money where it could actually work for us. I dismissed every social invitation in order to turn our financial future around from its downward spiral, and I managed to do that in less than a year. You, on the other hand, had four years before I returned, yet you did nothing—just like Father.”
“Nothing? Nothing?” Anthony’s fury welled up in a choking flood, and he clenched his fists lest he do something with them that he would regret. “By God, you’ve had it easy. You came back after he was gone, with full power to do anything you wished. I had to sit here and listen to him tell me of his plans—his plans for raising this crop or that, for installing this system or that, for hiring this man or that—just plans, knowing he had no intention of taking the first step. He wouldn’t listen to my advice; he became furious if I tried to give it. Don’t you think I wanted to make changes? Don’t you think I wanted to look at the books? I was forbidden. Forbidden, I tell you. And then, after he died, before you returned, I still had no authority. I couldn’t do a single thing. I couldn’t even draw an allowance off the bloody estate. Everything was tied up in a big bow, waiting for you. And you have the audacity to sit there and tell me where I failed.”
Derek’s expression softened. “Look, this isn’t about finding fault. I know you were in an untenable position, and I know you spent most of your time at Farnsworth, helping Uncle Harold, perhaps because father wouldn’t let you make decisions here. But if you’d had the authority to make changes, you wouldn’t have known what to do. Farnsworth would fit into the smallest pasture of one of our estates. And your Army experience doesn’t help you here. What was it you were doing there … drawing maps?”
The flush of color Anthony had been battling won upon Derek’s offhand mention of his Army career. “I suppose you’re trying to make me feel less a man about that too. I would have gone into action. Gladly. But father ensured that I couldn’t. He paid—and plenty—for a safe, secure job, without ever telling me. Do you know how that made me feel? Having my superior officers think I was too much of a coward to go into battle?”
Anthony forced himself to take a deep breath. He thought he’d gotten over this resentment, but just remembering that his superiors had known of his father’s manipulations while he hadn’t was enough to make the anger come rushing back.
Compassion darkened Derek’s gray eyes, enraging Anthony all the more. How dare his brother feel sorry for him! “Father told me why he did it, after he’d paid off my commission to bring me home. He did it to keep me safe, to ensure that I would come back to be the duke.”
“The fact remains that you’ve no financial experience and this job requires it. Do you think the Marquess of Hammerly knows nothing about running an estate? He’s been in charge of half his family’s holdings since he came of age. His father did the right thing by teaching him what he should know, by giving him the authority to make decisions. Unfortunately, ours didn’t. If I hadn’t made my own fortune, learned to manage my own estate, my own investments, we would be in dire straits now. Face the facts, Anthony. You don’t have what it takes to manage the dukedom and you know it. If you did … if I had come home to find you successfully running Dorrington, after having pulled us out of the muck, I swear I would have stepped back. But that’s not what happened.”
Derek sighed and looked down at his desk, his gaze roaming over papers until it settled on one. He held it up. “Now … about Penelope. What shall I tell the marquess?”
Anthony drew himself up to his full six-foot-one-inch height. “You can tell him to go to the devil,” he said. Then he turned and strode from the room.