Everything Sebastian had ever known was a lie.
“You’re saying I’m no longer the duke. That I am illegitimate. Do I have that right?” Sebastian Dutton, the Duke of Hasford, spoke in a clipped, sharp tone. A tone he normally reserved for one of his dogs caught gnawing on a shoe.
This was much bigger than footwear.
Sebastian sat across from the solicitor’s desk, his cousin Thaddeus Dutton, the Earl of Kempthorne, sitting beside him. Unlike Sebastian, Thaddeus looked as though he’d been up for hours—crisp, alert, and attentive. Likely he had; Thaddeus took his duties in service to Her Majesty very seriously. He had wanted to join the army since he and Sebastian had first played tin soldiers together.
The solicitor visibly swallowed before he replied to Sebastian’s terse statement.
“Yes. You do not have claim to being the Duke of Hasford.”
He heard Thaddeus emit a gasp, which was the most demonstrative Thaddeus ever got—his gasp was equal to another person’s dead faint.
Sebastian had gotten up at a ridiculous time to attend this appointment—normally he would have sent his secretary, but the note from the solicitor’s office had strongly emphasized he should attend in person. So he’d roused himself before noon, grouchily drank his coffee, and tried to look somewhat awake as he approached the address indicated on the note.
The cousins were both tall, but there the resemblance ended; where Sebastian was fair haired and lean, with an easy smile and an even easier charm, Thaddeus was dark, from his hair to his eyes to his rigorous sense of right and wrong.
They were opposites, and the best of friends. Dubbed the Angel and the Devil by their friends and family, though there were disputes as to which was which. In appearance, Thaddeus was devilish, but it was Sebastian’s attitude toward life that earned him the sobriquet.
You do not have claim to being the Duke of Hasford.
Had the floor dropped out from under him, or was that just how he felt? For the first time, he knew no amount of personal magnetism or supreme confidence would rescue him from the situation.
“So who am I?” Sebastian asked. His words were spoken through a clenched jaw.
“Mr. de Silva,” the solicitor replied.
Mr. de Silva, the illegitimate son of a duke. “My mother’s name.”
“Yes,” the solicitor confirmed. “Your mother and your father were not legitimately married, because British law states that a man may not marry the sister of his widow. And your mother was the late duchess’s sister, not her cousin, as she’d told your father.” The man cleared his throat. “It’s all detailed in the letters she wrote aboard ship.”
“Of course she lied,” Sebastian said bitterly. He’d always known his mother to be a scheming, heartless creature; her treatment of Ana Maria, his older half sister, proved that. He hadn’t known she’d also been a liar.
At least she was consistent in her behavior, he thought humorlessly.
He leaned forward to look at the proof, the seemingly innocuous papers that lay on the solicitor’s desk. Yellow, faded, and ragged around the edges, they were proof positive that Sebastian’s parents’ marriage was illegal. He recognized his mother’s handwriting. And her duplicity.
“Where did these come from?” Sebastian demanded. He couldn’t succumb to the dark hole that was threatening to engulf him. He had to keep asking questions, to find out what happened so he could understand. If it was possible to make sense of it at all.
The solicitor placed his hands flat on his desk, spreading his fingers wide. “They were found in the duchess’s vault box. That is, your late mother.” Since she wasn’t actually the duchess. “Letters she wrote, but apparently never mailed. We discovered them after the accident.”
The carriage accident that took both his parents’ lives.
“But that was over six months ago,” Thaddeus pointed out. “How is it that these are just coming to light now?”
“It takes time to review all the paperwork after such an event,” the solicitor said in a defensive tone. “And we needed to translate the letters,” he added.
“Why would your mother lie?” Thaddeus said, turning his intense stare toward Sebastian. “There was no practical reason to hide the relationship.”
Thaddeus, ever practical. Always searching for the reason in things. Whereas Sebastian never searched, things just arrived. Like his title, wealth, standing in society, women, and friends.
It was astonishing how quickly one’s entire world could be upended. All in the time it took for the solicitor to explain how Sebastian’s mother’s letters detailed every last subterfuge.
“My mother was ambitious,” Sebastian replied. Unable to keep the animosity from his tone. “She probably persuaded the late duchess that there was some reason to keep their relationship a secret—maybe it would have reflected badly on the family for a sister to act as a companion.” He shrugged, as though it didn’t matter. Of course it mattered. “The point is that I am not the duke.” He raked his hands through his hair, anger coursing through his veins.
The position he’d been trained for since he had been born was not his. The estates, the responsibility, the money, the title, the position—all of it gone.
“Who is?” Thaddeus asked.
Sebastian raised one wry eyebrow as he waited for Thaddeus to figure it out. And supplied the information when it seemed his normally sharp cousin was not processing it. “You’re the Duke of Hasford now, Thad.”
Sebastian didn’t think he had ever seen Thaddeus surprised before. The man was confoundingly strategic, always plotting his next move, anticipating events long before anybody else involved had thought of them. It was what had made him invaluable when they were growing up together—Sebastian usually thought up the mischief, Thaddeus planned out the event, and their friend Nash was there to quash any trouble.
But now Thaddeus looked as though he’d been hit in the head with a heavy object. Or a dukedom.
“That’s not—I mean,” Thad sputtered.
If Sebastian were feeling more inclined, he’d have to laugh at his cousin’s expression and inability to speak in a complete sentence. But he was not inclined. He was furious. With his mother, with his feckless, foolish father, with his own expectations.
“It is.” He tapped the papers in front of them. “This proves it.” He leaned back, folding his arms over his chest. “And I am plain Mr. de Silva.”
His fury changed to fierce protectiveness as he thought of his half sister, at home without any clue of what was happening. “You’ll take care of Ana Maria, of course.” He knew Thaddeus would have no thought of doing otherwise, but he needed to say it, to retain some measure of agency.
“Of course,” Thaddeus said. “But what if I don’t want to be the duke?” Thaddeus asked, directing his question to the solicitor. “Can’t we just pretend we’ve never seen these documents? That things are as we always thought?”
Thaddeus was the only person of Sebastian’s acquaintance who had never been envious of Sebastian’s position, either as a duke’s heir or as the duke himself. Which was why he seemed to have forgotten he was Sebastian’s heir. Thaddeus had been actively relieved that he was able to serve in the army, serving Her Majesty rather than his own pleasure.
Whereas Sebastian believed that serving his own pleasure meant that those who relied on him would also benefit. That belief applied mostly to the ladies he pleasured, but he took pains to ensure that his staff and tenants were also taken care of properly.
He was privileged, he knew that, but he used his charm and influence so that everyone would like and appreciate him rather than resent him.
Sebastian was shaking his head before his cousin had finished speaking. “You can’t refuse it, Thad. That’s the whole point of primogeniture and such. And it would be wrong. It would be a lie. You know that.”
Thaddeus’s eyes widened. “Primogeniture? Since when do you have such an extensive vocabulary?”
Sebastian shrugged. “Since I might have to do something rather than just be something.” It was a return to his normal insouciant self, but it rang hollow.
Thaddeus’s expression drew grim.
“You know, it’s not the worst thing in the world to be told you’re actually a duke,” Sebastian pointed out drily. Thaddeus glared at him, then folded his arms over his chest.
Poor sad duke.
“So what happens now?” Sebastian asked, directing his question to the solicitor.
The man cleared his throat again, looking unhappy. Have you also been told everything you thought you were is wrong? Sebastian thought. I don’t think so. So stop making that expression.
“Well, the Duke of Hasford—that is—” and he gestured toward Thaddeus “—will assume the position immediately. That will include the estates, the ducal holdings, and everything inherited from the late duke.”
Everything, in other words. Sebastian didn’t have anything of his own, anything that belonged to—what was his name now?—Sebastian de Silva. His mother’s last name. The only thing she had been able to leave him, despite her machinations.
The yawning blank of his future widened in front of him. No money beyond what he had on hand. Likely that belonged to Thad, as well. No path forward. No privilege.
“I can’t take care of everything right away,” Thaddeus said, obviously trying to keep his tone measured. And failing spectacularly. “I command a regiment, it will take time to extricate myself.” He sounded desperate. “You can continue for the time being, can’t you?” he asked Sebastian.
The solicitor’s lips pursed. “That—” he began, before Sebastian interrupted.
“No, Thad.” He spoke in a decisive tone. “Much as I would love to help you out by overseeing one of the wealthiest titles in England,” he said understatedly, “I cannot.” He pointed at the documents. “Those say I cannot. What would it look like if you refused to do your duty? Even for a short time?” He shook his head as he leaned forward. “It would be devastating. The one thing I know in this world is that the Duke of Hasford has responsibilities to the title, to the land, to the tenants and workers, to the country. I’ve been indoctrinated with that duty since I was born. I cannot betray it.” He spoke with the ferocity he normally reserved for flattering a particularly beautiful woman.
Thaddeus clamped his mouth shut, and Sebastian saw a muscle tic in his jaw. That’s when he knew Thad wouldn’t argue. It was his tell, and Sebastian had taken advantage of it over many card games. But this was one situation where Thad had the winning hand—even though he did not want it.
Sebastian slid the documents back toward the solicitor as he rose out of his chair. Feeling his jaw clench. “I will leave you and the Duke of Hasford to continue your discussion. I presume there is nothing further?” His tone made it clear it would be a presumption if there was.
The solicitor shook his head. “Thank you for coming, Your—that is, Mr. de Silva.”
He suppressed a wince at his name. He’d have to grow accustomed to it.
He addressed Thad, noting his cousin’s severe expression. Once again, the cousins were in perfect agreement. “I’ll vacate the town house as soon as possible, Your Grace. I was planning to launch Ana Maria into Society, so you’ll have to take that over. She deserves it.”
Whatever happened, at least he knew Ana Maria would be secure. Even if she was also devastated by the turn of events. “I will be available to answer any questions you have regarding the estate management and the tenants and such.”
“Seb, you don’t have to go right away.” Thaddeus looked even grimmer. “This is a lot to absorb, and we’ll both need some time to adjust.”
Sebastian bit back whatever angry words he wanted to say—it wasn’t Thad’s fault that Seb’s mother had lied. Thad didn’t want the title just as much as Seb did. “I’ll find somewhere else to go. You’ll have to decide if you want to keep the staff. My valet, Hodgkins, will take this hard. If you don’t have anyone yet for that position, I’d recommend keeping him on.”
The change didn’t just mean change for him—it would alter his entire household. His valet, his secretary, the butler, the housekeeper. He had spent six months learning about these people now that he was their master, working with them, assuring them that he was not his careless father. And definitely not his demanding mother. Something he had been thwarted in doing until he had assumed the title. But now the title wasn’t his, after all.
He wanted to punch something, someone, but that wouldn’t do anything but make his knuckles sore.
“Of course. You can trust me to do what’s right.”
Sebastian wished he were calm enough to sit back down and review the details of the staff with Thaddeus, try to persuade him to give all of them a chance, even though Thad was rightfully proud of his ability to make a quick, decisive decision. And even though some of the staff was still a work in progress—progress Sebastian had been making, with Ana Maria’s guidance.
But he couldn’t spend another minute here, not without unleashing his anger, and nobody here deserved that.
“I’ll see you later, cousin.”
He spun on his heel and walked out of the solicitor’s office, ignoring Thaddeus calling his name, nodding at the clerks who were working outside. Maintaining his ducal facade even as his world was crumbling around him.
Hours later, Sebastian was exhausted, hungry, and thirsty. He’d spent the time since leaving the solicitor’s office pacing through the streets of London, his mind obsessively churning the information over and over again, as though that would change the outcome. Finally, unable to walk any longer, he returned home. As though home was his home.
He didn’t have a home anymore. He didn’t own anything anymore.
He wasn’t who he’d thought he was anymore.
He’d never truly appreciated the Duke of Hasford’s town house until it wasn’t his any longer, but as he approached the house he viewed it as others did; the most opulent house on the street, it had over two dozen windows in the front alone, enormous pillars serving no apparent purpose beyond declaring that the owner of the house had so much money he could spend it on useless pieces of marble.
It was elegant and extravagant and shameless.
Rather like him, he thought remorsefully. And like the pillars, he was just as useless. Not even propping up the aristocracy.
“Welcome home, Your Grace.” His butler, Fletchfield, hesitated for the slightest fraction before saying his honorific. Meaning the news had already spread here, at least to his butler. No doubt it had already spread through most of Society; that a duke could be de-duked, as it were, would be a scandal for the ages.
“Thank you, Fletchfield.” Sebastian gave his hat and coat to the butler. “Whiskey in my office. I’ll be down after I change.”
“Yes, Your . . .” But the butler’s words were lost as Sebastian sprinted up the stairs to his bedroom, turning the knob and flinging the door open.
His valet, Hodgkins, was there, treating him as he usually did. So the news likely hadn’t reached beyond Fletchfield. It would, of course, and Sebastian wished he could assure them, all of them, that they would be fine even if he wasn’t, but he couldn’t make that guarantee, even though he knew Thaddeus would do the right thing. They’d be fearful of losing their positions no matter what—his mother had terrorized them enough during her tenure.
“I’ll be changing to go out,” he said.
Go out where? a voice asked.
Damned if I know.
He glanced around the room as Hodgkins bustled about, getting his things. He hadn’t gotten around to redecorating the master bedroom after his parents died, and everything was done in his mother’s style, discreetly tasteful colors indicating just how very expensive it was. The only thing in the room that was truly his was his shaving kit, which his father had gifted to him on his sixteenth birthday. It was engraved with his initials, although they weren’t his initials any longer, were they?
But it was his, even if nothing else was.
Soon Sebastian was rigged out in his most ostentatious clothing—a gold patterned waistcoat, an elegant black necktie, slim trousers, and a blindingly white shirt—even though he had no place to be. He considered attending a party or five—there were plenty of invitations, but they were all addressed to the Duke of Hasford. Not Mr. Sebastian de Silva.
And he knew that the party guests, those of whom liked to gossip, which meant most of them, would take no time in reminding him he was a mere mister now.
“Damn it,” he said to himself as he descended the stairs. He took a quick left into his office, where he spotted the tray with the whiskey right away. “Thank God,” he murmured, pouring himself a healthy amount. He’d been spending a lot of time in this room, learning the estate affairs, taking meetings with the staff. Once he’d inherited the title from his father, it had felt crucial that he focus on his responsibilities rather than his pleasure.
He could return to pleasure now. But he didn’t want to. Nor would he have the privilege of doing so—he’d have to . . . work for his living now?
He’d never considered that possibility when he’d contemplated his future.
The enormity of the change hit him all over again. Nothing was his. Not his clothing, not this house, not anything. Not even the name he’d grown up with. He was Mr. Sebastian de Silva now. Nothing more.
He really needed whiskey, even though that wasn’t his either. He knew, however, that Thaddeus wouldn’t begrudge him a stiff drink.
He held the glass up to his mouth, then frowned as he spotted the signet ring on his right pinkie.
The signet ring that had belonged to his father, the Duke of Hasford. That was passed on to all the dukes in succession.
He put the glass back down on the table, yanked the ring from his finger, and flung it into the corner of the room.
“Your aim is improving.”
Sebastian heard Nash’s voice before he saw him. His friend was standing in the shadows, as usual, but emerged into the light, holding the ring, his usual grim smile on his lips.
Nash stood as tall as Sebastian, but where Sebastian was lean and elegant, Nash, the Duke of Malvern, was pure force. He looked more like a stevedore than a duke, and he behaved more like one as well, preferring the company of common men to his literal peers.
He’d grown up with Sebastian and Thaddeus, and the three had maintained their close friendship through inheritance, the army, romantic heartbreak, and feckless parents.
“You’ve heard.” Sebastian picked his glass up and drained it as Nash approached.
He poured a glass, handing it to Nash, who took it and drank it all down, barely wincing at the burn of the whiskey.
“I did.” Nash held his glass out for more. “I thought that between you and Thad, you might need me more.”
Sebastian snorted as he poured more liquid into Nash’s glass. “I’m not certain about that. Thaddeus looked as though someone had deliberately disorganized his papers when we heard the news.” He glanced reflexively at the surface of his desk, which was neatly arranged. He hoped his secretary would meet Thad’s exacting standards.
Nash chuckled. “What are you going to do?”
That was the question of the day, wasn’t it? “I don’t know.” Sebastian sat down on the sofa, leaning his head back and closing his eyes. “I need to tell Ana Maria. I need to let the staff know, although I suspect the news has already reached them. But first I need to—”
“Get drunk,” Nash supplied. “With me at a place where you won’t run into as many of those condescending pricks.”
“Which condescending pricks?” He waved a hand as Nash opened his mouth. “Never mind, I know you mean all of them. Tell me how you really feel,” Sebastian replied drily. He sat up, slapping his hands on his thighs. “Your idea is a good one, but I can’t get too drunk because I need to speak with my sister tomorrow.”
Thank goodness Ana Maria was out this evening. He didn’t remember where she had gone, but there was no danger Ana Maria would get in any kind of trouble—his half sister was remarkably staid in her behavior, given how wild her younger half brother was. Or had been, until he’d inherited six months ago.
“Drunk enough to take the edge off, then,” Nash said. “Miss Ivy’s, I think. It’s new.”
“As long as there is an abundance of whiskey and a paucity of condescending pricks,” Seb replied.