To Conquer the Earl’s Bed by Roselyn Francis

Prologue

''Son,'' called Edmund's father to him, his voice raw-sounding, faint with fatigued ill. "I shall be going away soon."

Edmund clenched his fists on hearing his father’s words, and fought back the tears which had gathered in the crook of his throat.

Edmund Caldwell had seen a lot of things that had threatened to rip his heart from his chest. He had seen his childhood best friend die, after he had been plowed and dragged through the streets by a wild horse ridden by a highborn. He had seen his mother twist and turn on the same bed his father now lay, ridden with an illness they did not think she was going to survive. She had tasted death itself, but somehow, she had managed to hang on to life.

But none of those things had hurt him as much as seeing his father lying on the bed beside him, coughing spasmodically. Coughs that more often than not produced bits of tissue and blood.

His mother was seated on the bed, her hand clasped in his father’s fragile one. She was trying her best not to cry, but Edmund could see the grief had torn through her. She had lost a lot of weight since her husband got ill, and she barely left his side.

Edmund looked back at his father. Michael Caldwell was staring straight at him, smiling even as the coughs ravaged through him. Edmund looked away. He could not bear to see his father smile, especially when he knew that in only a little time, he would never see that smile again.

Tears were beginning to form in his eyes, and Edmund wiped them away before they began to fall. His father was dying, and he had to take on his position as the man of the house. He had to know how to bear loses without succumbing to tears.

But, Edmund did not think he could become the man of the house just yet.

He was still sixteen years old. All he could think about, right now, was why this had to happen to him, why he had to deal with so much loss.

And, just as the thought crept up his mind, the answer swept past in a flurry, an answer Edmund did not need to examine closely because he knew it with all his heart.

“Kat,” his father whispered bare moments ago, and his mother had jerked aright.

“What is it? Do you need anything?” she asked, her words tumbling over each other in their desperation to get out.

Edmund’s father had a smile on his face when he said, “Nothing at all. I want to speak with Eddie, that’s all.”

His mother glanced at him, her eyes full of sorrow and sadness and a lot of things Edmund didn’t know, before she stood up and walked away, still throwing glances at her husband.

Edmund had watched her leave. It was a short trip out of the townhouse in which they lived. Even though his father had been one of the sons of the Earl of Clovelly, he had stood to inherit nothing but the small townhouse in which Edmund had lived all of his life. This was because he was not a first son, but a mere second son.

Edmund felt his fists ball up before the thought even began forming. He shook his head. It would not do to think of him. There was absolutely no reason to.

“Eddie,” his father said now, his voice rather faint. “I’ll need you to be strong.”

If Edmund were eight years younger, he would have shook his head and denied his father’s statement with everything within him. But now, he merely nodded, pushing away the grief threatening to overpower him.

“I need you to step up and be the man of the house for your mother,” Michael said with a slight cough. “I also want you to know how very proud of you I am. The happiest day of our lives was when you came into it. I know you’re going to go on and become a great man, as great as anyone I ever knew.”

Tears were trickling down his father’s face now, and Edmund knew he looked exactly the same. His father had struggled to show him how much he cared about him over the years, he had never quite been able to put it into words. He was doing this now, because he knew the end was near.

Edmund felt his grief getting replaced by a towering anger. This did not have to happen. In fact, it could have been very much prevented. Under other circumstances, Michael would not be lying on this bed, coughing up bits of his own flesh. He would be teaching Edmund the science of herbs in the open fields where he liked to retire to after he had return from a long day's job as a physician. He would be humming in his deep bass and asking of Edmund what he thought his mother would prepare for supper.

But instead, this was happening, and that was all because his uncle was a sadistic, hell-bound, hateful fellow.

Edmund tried to push away the thoughts then, but they were overpowering him, blinding him with startingly clear memories. He still remembered the day, two months ago, when he and his mother had tried to seek help from his uncle, the Earl of Clovelly. They had never been to his estate before, of course, because there was absolutely no need to see a wealthy family relative who let his only brother live in an old townhouse a little out of London.

Still, they had needed to see him that day. Edmund’s father's illness was growing worse by the day, and they had needed him to see a physician. Even if his uncle had not written to Edmund’s father since the day he left for the cottage, Edmund was hopeful his uncle would help.

But he had been quite wrong.

The earl had refused to see them, and when they had told the servant who reported this to them that his brother was dying, he had not even deemed it fit to respond. The gates were slammed shut in their faces. A result of bad blood, a deep-seated sibling rivalry between two brothers which had only aged with them, and which now would cost Edmund's father his life.

That day, Edmund felt more stunned than angry, but as his father’s illness progressed and he was faced with his incapacitation, he had finally started to feel the anger. Now, Edmund's fury had consumed him, and every time he saw his father on the bed, he felt the urge to punch something.

“Eddie,” his father suddenly called, and Edmund looked into his old, wrinkled face.

“This was meant to be,” his father said, as though reading his thoughts. “Don’t blame anyone.”

Edmund gave a tight nod, but he knew he was going to hold on to this belief for as long as he lived. This was not meant to be.

His father drew a rasping breath. “I need to rest." He coughed into his fist. “Go now,” he said. "Look after your mother. For both of us."

Michael closed his eyes, and Edmund felt a thrill of foreboding as he looked down on his father’s face. He did not know why, but he had a distinct feeling his father would never open his eyes again.

He turned away from the bed, trying to push the feeling away. Hours later, when his father gave up the ghost, Edmund would think of that feeling, would wonder how he knew.

But right now, he thought only of his uncle.

There and then, Edmund made two decisions.

One, he would go on and become an even greater man than his father wanted. He was going to make his own wealth, so much that he would not need anyone else when someone precious to him was dying.

And second, that he would never forgive his uncle. Never.