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The Duchess and the Dragon

Chapter One
The Netherlands

Drake’s fist came down on the massive desk with bone crushing impact. Pain radiated up his arm and into his body, a body trained in the art of bland derision. A body broken now, unable to restrain the fury of this betrayal. He cursed, the sound a quiet hiss in the room. He hung his head, his straight, black hair a curtain over clenched eyes. “May he rot in --- ”

“Quite right.” Charles Blaine, friend and neighbor for as long as Drake could remember, threw himself back into the luxurious cushions of a chair. “Dastardly business, that.” He’d said this already. Twice. He repeated it for the third time, staring at the carpet, shaking his head.

Drake swung away from his friend, wishing to be alone, wishing for only the ears of these four walls that he might truly vent his mingled disbelief and outrage. Instead, he took a bracing breath and pulled himself together. He was giving his friends a start.

Control... control, man... control everything still within grasp. His stomach trembled with the effort.

With a short crack of laughter, he swung back to face his guests, his lip curling, his tone edged in the scorn they all expected. “I should have guessed, I suppose. Stupid of me, really, not to have been prepared. Not to have countered the old man somehow.” His voice lowered as he looked down and away from them. “I suppose I never believed he really hated me so much as he let on.”

The other two men in the room exchanged glances, obviously at a loss. How could they have any answers for him? The facts spoke for themselves, glaringly real on the scattered pages that lay against the black gloss of the old duke’s ornate desk.

Albert Radcliff, the family barrister, mopped at his brow and blew his nose, which was forever running --- but had been running with particular need in the strain of the last hour. By some odd twist of fate, Albert was visiting Alnwick Castle when the old duke, Ivor Weston, clutched his chest and collapsed onto the rug, gasping for air like a beached trout.

Drake, too, was home, which was stranger yet. As if all the stars had aligned and arranged the drama so that it might unfold exactly as Ivor wanted. It was fully imaginable that Ivor bargained with the devil for such a favor, some last request in exchange for witnessing a son’s destruction.

A favorite pastime of the devil’s to be sure.

Charles, though, must have had an angel nudging him. Drake’s boyhood friend and neighbor arrived full of excitement about his most recent purchase --- a new stallion, a white Lipizzan of famed parentage to add to his stables. They’d been admiring the magnificent animal in the drive when they heard shouts for help from the butler. Drake wasn’t sure what he would have done had he not had his friend’s bracing support. He shuddered, imagining his hands around the solicitor’s throat... the new will Ivor insisted Albert enact thrown into the fire, curling black and smoking, disguised as ash.

No, it didn’t bear thinking of.

But Drake couldn’t help it, couldn’t escape the memory of his father laid out on the floor. The sound of the old man’s desperate, rasping command --- “New will... in the safe!” --- rang out in the room like a death knell.

He could only watch, his hand stretched out toward his father, while waves of shock rippled through his body. But Ivor was intent on only one thing. He lifted his head off the floor and grasped his solicitor’s hand in a vein-popping, eye-bulging frenzy. “It is what I want... nothing else will do. Find it, Albert.”

Drake moved into his father’s field of vision and knelt down beside him, reaching for his hand.

Ivor jerked away, placing the hand on his rasping chest, then finally turned toward Drake. Ivor stared at him --- really looked into his eyes as he’d never done before. Drake recoiled as his father’s mask of indifference was stripped away by death’s honesty, exposing the truth of feverish eyes and compressed lips, revealing a long-awaited, gleeful vengeance.

The old duke even cackled in his excitement, a grating, harsh sound that was cut off with a gasp for air. He’d started to speak, then gave up and died --- that leering smile lingering around his now frozen lips.

So sinister was the scene that both Drake and Albert backed away from the body as though it were black and stinking with the plague. They’d looked at one another for several shocked moments, then made for the safe.

And now they knew.

Each person in the room knew the depths of his father’s hatred for him. By the end of the month the whole of society would learn the shocking news that Drake Alexander Weston, the only child of the Duke of Northumberland, had mysteriously, inexplicably, been cut from the will.

Albert stood, his hands shaking as he restacked the papers. He looked up at Drake, strain deepening the creases around his mouth and eyes, his age-mottled hand lying flat on the restacked documents.

“A nasty piece of business if ever I saw one. It is not the will he had me draw up years ago, my... lord.” He choked on the title, throat working up and down under the loose skin of his neck, then coughed into a hastily pulled handkerchief. That he should now be calling Drake “your grace” instead of “my lord” was one of many mockeries yet in store for Drake.

Drake waved him off. “Never mind, Albert. I suppose I will have to get used it. I suppose I should be happy to have a title a’tall.” He said the words in a clear tone, but had to turn away from their staring faces, his stomach rolling. He fought the nausea threatening his throat.

Unsure of his way, he found himself walking to one of the many masterpieces displayed on a far wall. Van Dyck’s lush Samson and Delilah hung suspended like a scene come to life against the swirling mother-of-pearl panels of the walls. He stared at the raw beauty of the scene. Here was a man with strength, the kind of strength to bring down kingdoms. But Samson had his weakness, and Drake? Now he knew his. Tears welled up behind his eyes. He’d only wanted to please his father, to know that he was proud of the man Drake had become. But it wasn’t to be. Now, all he could see was a painting that would never belong to him. A father’s love that he would never have. Why? His mind struggled to grasp it. Why all the grooming and pretending? The years at Eton and then Cambridge, the best schools in England, the military career in His Majesty’s Royal Navy, the constant displeasure at any show of emotion other than self-satisfaction for some material gain. All the torment he’d gone through that made him into the man he now was. He’d thought it was to make him into a duke. He’d thought it was to mold him into a man like his father.

He’d thought wrong.

Drake paced across the rich Savonnerie rug, woven for this very room and placed to complement the gleaming mosaic flooring. His father spent much of his life in this room, overseeing its most minute detail --- all part of the grand scheme to reflect the power and honor of the Seat of Northumberland. Drake’s gaze swept the room, trying to grasp some hidden meaning.

He remembered, as a boy, when he’d really seen it for the first time. The richness of color and texture could be overwhelming to someone unused to such luxury. He’d seen the awe on their guests’ faces many times, and he’d always taken pride in the fact that someday... someday it would be him greeting that awed visitor; it would be his room that brought gasps of wonder from men and women who could but dream of such wealth.

A trickle of sweat ran down his back as he realized he was gasping for air. This place... it was breathtaking. Was there any place on earth more perfect? Alnwick Castle. It was his promised inheritance.



He lurched back toward the men, trying to wear the familiar devil-may-care attitude but feeling like a carefully constructed house of cards whose bottom strut had been jerked away.

His eyes were drawn to the desk where the destruction of his life lay. The new will, confident in its strong, slashing handwriting, glared at him. The desk, a work of art, made of ebony wood covered with tortoise shell and inlaid with gilded brass, mocked him. A jade sculpture of a Chinese dragon stood on one corner, ornate and ferocious in design. It used to frighten him as a child.

Now he knew there were far more terrifying things in life than dragons.

A marble quill and ink set stood now silent near the top center edge.

Weapons used to destroy his future.

A clear glass sphere sat on the other corner along with several dogs, some intricate blown glass, some porcelain, others pewter and silver --- all made in the image of his father’s only passion outside power and wealth: his dogs.

His father’s favorite, Hunter, had received the attention and praise Drake had longed for as a child. He had been secretly glad when the dog died, but it hadn’t mattered. There was little Drake could do to earn a word of praise from the stoic Ivor Weston, fourth Duke of Northumberland.

Now Drake realized it was far worse than he had suspected. His father hadn’t just disliked him. He’d harbored a deep hatred for his son. The question remained: Why?

Drake stared at the pages willing them to reveal some clue. His father’s handwriting, so stark and clear, proved he had been keen until his last breath. The hope that he had gone mad held no relief. Nothing could explain what he had done --- expect pure maliciousness. Drake, his hands now braced on each polished edge, stared at the desk, in the room his father loved, and felt his barely constrained hurt and rage break through the barrier of his will. With a violent roar, he swept the pages and decorative accoutrements onto the floor. Glass and porcelain shattered; papers fluttered through the air like the feathers of a bird caught mid-flight by a bullet.

He swung around to face his startled friends. He’d let the caged animal out, but he no longer cared. Let them pity him. “There must be a way out of this! I refuse to let him do this to me!” Looking at the barrister he commanded, “Burn the will. We will use the other. The one you wrote up years ago. No one will know.”

Albert only shook his head and looked down. “Nasty business, that. Can’t do it.”

Charles leapt up, clearing his throat, then made for the crystal decanter to pour a stout drink. Avoiding the broken glass, he picked his way back to Drake’s side. “Easy, man,” he said in a voice meant to soothe, “drink this.”

Drake shook his head as if clearing it from a fog, took hold of the drink, and gulped it in one swallow. Hot talons of fire burned his throat, but he was glad. Glad of any sensation other than the dark pit of despair that awaited him. Setting the glass down on the now barren desk, he walked to a chair and sat. He closed his eyes and then dropped his head into his hands, no longer trying to make sense of it all, only knowing searing pain.

Charles cleared his throat. “Look here, Albert, is there nothing we can do? No way around the will?”

Drake looked up, saw Albert’s gaze dart around the room as if it could help him. Shaking his head he said finally, “I am afraid not, the will is very clear, supersedes the other. The ducal estate and title is to be given to the, um, the cousin, Lord Randolph.” His voice lowered as he corrected himself. “His grace, Randolph Weston.” He mopped at his damp brow with his ever ready handkerchief as his eyes wandered over to the crystal decanter as if he, too, needed a drink.

Drake stood abruptly, “Do not call him by that title within my hearing, do you understand? Never again.”

Albert nodded and continued. “Sorry, but you must accustom yourself to hearing it. It will soon be common knowledge.” Albert shook his gray head and looked at the floor. “If only you had a brother, then we could at least keep it in the immediate family.”

Drake’s head shot up. “What was that?”

Albert reddened, a vein pulsing blue in his forehead. “I am sorry, my lord. Pointless to think, much less speak of such things.”

“What is this about a brother?”

“Only that if you had a legitimate brother, my lord, your cousin would then become heir presumptive and the title and estate might go to the sibling as the next of kin after you.”

“Your father hasn’t a pregnant mistress hidden around the place, has he?” Charles drawled from his chair.

Drake rose and began pacing the length of the carpet. Giving Charles a scowl, he directed his question to Albert. “How so, when my father dictated in his will that everything be given to my cousin?”

“The king would doubtless override the will if a more direct heir were discovered. A few carefully placed words and documents, birth records and such, and I believe King George would look the other way and allow the sibling to inherit.” Albert shrugged. “Alas, there is no other heir.”

Drake stopped pacing in front of Albert and looked into the old man’s face with a slow smile. “Perhaps there will be.” He spoke more to himself than the others. “Yes, a dear, little brother.”

Rubbing his chin thoughtfully, he felt his smile grow. Of course. It was perfect. The best part of this plan was that his father, for all his wealth and determination, would not have the last laugh after all.

That distinct pleasure would belong to Drake.

Excerpted from THE DUCHESS AND THE DRAGON © Copyright 2011 by Jamie Carie. Reprinted with permission by B&H Publishing Group. All rights reserved.

The Duchess and the Dragon
by by Jamie Carie