Albourne Park, England, December 1813
Screaming at the top of their lungs, the two children fought for the possession of a rocking horse.
“Please, Master Claude and Master Henry, lower your voices,” the nervous nanny implored the recalcitrant monsters for the tenth time.
William Raleigh, Fifth Duke of Chilham, Earl of Clovelly, and a handful of other titles, stared at the scene in front of him with equal part amusement and frustration. Amusement because the evil spawn belonged to his dear sister Eleonor. Frustration because Eleonor would fault him for her children’s antics. As if William could’ve known that when presenting twins with gifts, one should always buy the exact same toy twice. He should have known, though, since he himself was a twin—in his own defense, his sibling was of the female persuasion, and they had never fought over playthings.
“Would you care to intervene?” William asked Arthur, Earl of Albourne, and respectively, his brother-in-law and husband to his dear sister, which in turn made him the father of the evil spawn.
“Good Lord, no.” Arthur adroitly stepped out of the trajectory of the riot when his children started blindly kicking at each other.
The nanny, now on the verge of tears, looked at William as if he were her only hope to get out of her predicament with her position in the house intact.
The young woman’s uncertain future was the only reason William stepped into the fray, grabbed the wooden horse, and calmly threw it out of the window. A moment later, the sound of the toy smashing against the ground five stories below, echoed into the room. Afterwards, silence blissfully filled the nursery as four sets of eyes stared at him without blinking.
“Problem solved,” he said, turning on his heels and exiting the room with a flourish of his hat.
The effect of his dramatic departure was dampened by Eleonor’s untimely decision to appear at the door when he was about to cross the threshold.
“What did you do?” His dear sister’s voice held a judgmental note William was well accustomed to.
“Brought peace to a household run by heathens. That is what I did,” he answered without hesitation.
When confronted by his twin, William knew there was no escape from the lengthy conversation that would follow. He would be reminded of all his shortcomings in chronological order—the great accident of the rolling pig twenty-two years prior was unfortunately still too fresh in her impressionable, feminine mind. Lying and negating the evidence usually didn’t work, and not even passively listening to her lecture gave the desired result of shutting the river of accusations regurgitating from her mouth.
“Uncle ‘Liam broke horsy,” Claude said, eyes filling with tears and lower lip trembling. The child’s blond curls bobbed as he sniffled.
Bravo! William couldn’t help but to inwardly applaud his nephew’s performance. On the outside, he gave the boy a stern look.
“Uncle ‘Liam brought horsy,” Arthur explained, looking at his wife with bovine eyes.
“Et tu, Arthur!” William brought one hand to his heart and the other to his forehead.
His brother-in-law didn’t notice William’s act, though. A tragedy, really. The man was too busy smiling at his wife.
William wondered about that particular condition that seemed to afflict men of every age when they fell under the spell of the fatal illness people referred to as love. Even thinking the word in the safety of his mind made him shudder. Surely, being in the same room with an enamored couple wouldn’t put him at risk of catching the crippling ailment, would it?
He had come close to falling for a chit once and couldn’t help but grimace at the memory. Young and susceptible, he had lost his heart to a girl who had grievously ill-treated him. It had been a life lesson he hadn’t forgotten, and for which he was grateful because it had shaped him into the man he was now.
From the corner of his eye, William saw Arthur steal a kiss from his wife. The look of rapture on those two bedlamites’ faces made him cut his gaze promptly outside.
Under his bored stare, a high-perched phaeton entered the long driveway and proceeded towards the house at breakneck speed. The young driver, a skilled whip judging from the tight rein he kept on the beautiful pair of Arabian mares, waved at William. He returned the gesture out of politeness.
“One of your guests has arrived,” he threw over his shoulder, raising his voice to be heard over the commotion the twins had started anew over William’s other gift.
Ignoring their progeny, the conjoined couple stepped toward the window, smiling at each other as if they had discovered some great truth. William winced again and moved to the side to let them through.
Eleonor took a brief look outside and waved enthusiastically at the newcomer. “She has finally arrived!”
William dared another peek outside. He didn’t remember seeing anyone else perched on the phaeton beside the rider. A second glimpse didn’t suddenly reveal an ensconced woman.
“I am so glad she made it,” Eleonor gushed, hastily leaving the nursery, followed by Arthur.
Left alone at the window, William gave the rider a good look.
“Is it Auntie Flora?” Henry asked, accompanying his question with a tug of his uncle’s riding breeches.
The rider dismounted the curricle, vaulting from the high seat in an elegant arc. A pair of slender ankles appeared from under the skirt that billowed when the equestrienne jumped, and William was reminded all of a sudden of Eleonor’s best friend and his sworn enemy.
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