Dare to Risk it All by Emma V Leech
Fifteen years earlier…
22nd December 1825, Eton College, Windsor, Berkshire.
Raphe heard the footsteps hurrying towards him but didn’t look up. He huddled beneath the immense oak tree, head resting on his knees. Though the leaves had long since gone, the branches offered a little shelter from the snow that had been falling for the past half hour. It was bitterly cold. Raphe didn’t care. His fingers and toes hurt, and the frigid ground had frozen his arse numb, but none of that seemed to matter either.
“Raphe! There you are you great pillock. We’ve been looking everywhere.”
This show of affection came from Raphe’s best friend in the world, Daire Kelburn. Everyone called him Dare, though his father had died the year earlier, making him the Viscount Roxborough. Something they had in common now, Raphe thought dully.
“Raphe, what’s wrong, old man?”
This rather gentler enquiry came from August Lane Fox. He was a jolly decent fellow too, and a good friend, if less wild and troublesome than Dare and Raphe and—
“His pa’s gone and kicked the bucket.”
Raphe heard August and Dare gasp in shock at Bainbridge’s announcement.
“Dead, Raphe?” Dare asked, crouching down in front of him.
Eyes burning, Raphe raised his head, meeting his friend’s gaze. The words seemed to stick in his throat, so he just nodded.
“So sorry, Raphe,” August said, leaning down to give his shoulder an awkward pat. “A dreadful blow.”
“Worse than that,” Bainbridge said, and for once it relieved Raphe to be on the receiving end of the older boy’s blunt manner. It saved him from having to explain just how bad this was. “Stupid bastard shot himself in the head and didn’t bother to make it look like an accident. It’s one hell of a scandal.”
Raphe could feel the other boys staring at him in horror and his cheeks scalded with emotion. August was right. It was a dreadful blow. He’d known his father was not a sensible man, not the kind to be relied upon. He’d known most of their fortune had been lost at the card table too, but he was just a boy and he’d loved his father all the same, for he’d been kind and funny, and he was all Raphe had. His mother had died when he was a baby and his father had remarried quickly. His stepmother, Blanche, had not wanted a ready-made family, though, and resented him. She’d always made Raphe feel like the cuckoo in the nest. That he was his father’s heir was something that grieved her bitterly and she never it hid from him. Strangely, even though she had done her best to drive a wedge between them, his stepbrothers had never felt the same and they were very close. Indeed, Sylvester, two years his junior, idolised Raphe, and even baby Oliver lit up whenever he came into the room.
“What will you do?” Dare asked.
Raphe shrugged and wiped his nose on his sleeve, striving for an attitude of careless indifference that he was far from feeling. No use blubbing about it. That sort of thing would see you with your head stuck down the privy for being a cry-baby.
“Stay here for Christmas, I suppose. The cow doesn’t want me, does she?” he added scornfully, when he really wanted to curl up and sob. Though she’d done her best to make him feel like an interloper, he’d always loved Christmas with Pa and Sylvester and Oliver. That was all gone. He was on his own now.
“Well, that’s all right. You can spend it with us,” Dare said, beaming at him. “I’ve got no parents to go home to either, Bainbridge would rather stay here than get in the middle of his ancient ones’ battleground, and August wants to escape all the blasted women in his family. So, we can have our own Christmas here. It will be fun.”
“I’ve got tons of food. Brandy, too,” Bainbridge said, grinning at him. “And I’ve made a conquest of a pretty little barmaid who works at The King’s Head. Reckon she’d let us in if we sit in a dark corner and keep our heads down.”
“There, see? It’s not so bad.”
Dare was trying to sound cheerful, and perhaps for him it hadn’t been so bad, for Raphe knew Dare’s parents had forgotten he existed most of the time. But Dare’s father hadn’t been a coward. He hadn’t got himself into such dreadful debt that there was no way out, and then shot himself in the head. Raphe’s stepmother had been the one who found him, and, despite everything, Raphe could only pity her for that. He wondered how Sylvester and Oliver were and wished he could see them. Unlikely now. She would try harder than ever to keep them apart, and Pa wasn’t there to take Raphe’s side.
“Come along, before your bollocks fall off from the cold,” Bainbridge said, offering him a hand up.
Dare stuck out a hand too, and between them they hauled him upright.
“It will all work out. Everything will be fine,” Dare said in an undertone. “You’ll see.”
Raphe nodded, though he didn’t believe it for a minute. Nothing would ever be fine again.