Destiny with a Duke by Alexa Aston

Chapter One

Sommerville, Kent—August 1796

“How do youdo that, Finch?”

William Finchley brushed a final stroke along the water in his painting and glanced to his older brother, Cyril. Though three years separated them, he was already as tall as Cyril.

“I’m not really sure,” he admitted. “I . . . just see it in my head. Something inside me tells me what to do. How to mix the colors. The type of brush to use. Where to place things.”

“I truly believe you could pursue art as a career,” Cyril told him.

“Aren’t I supposed to go into the military?” he asked.

For as long as he could remember, Finch had been told he would enter the army after university, just as his father had. He barely remembered Papa, who had died when a stray bullet had struck him during a training exercise in India when Finch was five and Cyril was eight.

That was when they had come to live at Sommerville. With the duke.

He shuddered.

“I know you are a second son, but just because it’s expected doesn’t mean you have to do what they say,” Cyril pointed out. “When I am the duke, I will have the power to help you. You can stay here at Sommerville and paint to your heart’s content. Or I could set you up in an art studio in London.” He thought a moment and his eyes gleamed. “Or you could go to Paris. That’s where all the great artists have learned how to paint. Maybe ten years from now, France will have calmed down and you could study there.”

Finch could think of nothing better than being able to paint all day. Or carve with wood. Even though he was athletic and grew restless if he sat too long, he enjoyed working with his hands. To be an artist would fulfill a dream he had never admitted he even held.

But it was foolish to think that would ever occur. Not when the duke controlled every aspect of their lives.

“He wouldn’t let me.”

Without saying his name, Cyril nodded. They both knew Finch spoke of the duke, their paternal grandfather.

Their father had been a second son and probably glad he was able to escape from being under the old man’s controlling thumb. Their grandfather insisted upon managing every aspect of Cyril’s and Finch’s lives, from the colors of the jackets they wore to when and how long they could ride their horses. He selected books for them to read and called them into his study to discuss the contents. The duke forbade any sweets to pass their lips. It was a miracle that he allowed Cyril to continue to play the violin and Finch the time to paint, the only things Mama insisted upon because they had been important to the boys’ father.

But the Duke of Sommersby did far more than that. As close as Finch felt to his older brother, he had never been able to share with Cyril everything that happened when Finch was called into the old man’s study. He was too ashamed. And it had gone on far too long. He didn’t know how to stop something that had occurred for the five years they had lived at Sommerville. When he turned ten a few months ago, he had promised himself that he would speak up and make Sommersby stop.

In the end, though, he hadn’t voiced his complaints. His courage fled and he submitted as he always had. He told himself he was too small to fight back. Every night before he went to sleep, Finch would think about the day he was tall and his gangly arms and legs had filled out with muscle. Then he would take on the duke and never be hurt again.

“He can’t live forever, you know,” Cyril pointed out.

Finch shrugged, thinking of the story he had studied in school last term from the Greek historian Herodotus, which included the proverb Whom the gods love dies young.

If that were true, the Duke of Sommersby would live to be a thousand years old.

When he said nothing, his brother added, “I will be the next duke, Finch. He won’t be around to beat us anymore.”

He shook his head sadly as he began cleaning his brush, wishing it were only his grandfather’s beatings he had to suffer. He knew Cyril suffered those, just as Finch did, when they didn’t give the right answer to a question the duke asked or they were too slow in their response.

The butler appeared. “Lord Cyril, His Grace awaits you in the library. He says you are to discuss King Lear with him.”

Cyril said goodbye and left with the butler, his head hanging, the life seemingly sucked from him as his shoulders sank.

Finch finished cleaning his brushes and set them aside. He left the painting on the easel so that it could dry. He had stacks of completed canvases in his room. Despite what Cyril said, he doubted anyone would ever want his work. Even his own mother didn’t. She would humor him upon occasion, telling him a piece was nice, but she never wanted to hang any of them in her rooms. It was something that angered him. Shouldn’t a mother be proud and want to display a landscape painted by her son?

He sighed, trying hard not to let his feelings get hurt. Perhaps his mother didn’t like what he painted. Logically, he could understand—and even accept that.

What he couldn’t understand was why she had never protected him.

Did she have an inkling of what went on behind closed doors at Sommerville? If she did, she had ignored it, sacrificing his innocence just so she could have a roof over her head. He had heard Mama say many times that if not for her father-in-law, she and her boys would have had nowhere to go after they returned to England from India.

He supposed Sommersby had taken them in when he did because Cyril had suddenly become the heir apparent. Not only had their father been killed in an accident, but the uncle they had never met had been shot and killed in a duel days before his brother’s death. Suddenly, the Duke of Sommersby, who’d had both an heir and a spare, now had only a grandson who would inherit the dukedom one day. Finch knew that was why they had been given a place to live. He had also heard over the years, thanks to eavesdropping, what the duel had been about and shared that knowledge with Cyril. Finch hadn’t quite understood what a mistress was, much less why two men would turn to guns over one, but Cyril had clarified the situation for him, explaining about what went on between a man and a woman and how many men of the ton engaged in affairs.

It disgusted Finch. He never planned to have a mistress. In fact, he didn’t even want to have a wife. He was never going to be the duke and be required to provide an heir. No, Finch would go off to the army and spend his days far away from Sommerville. Perhaps he would be sent to India, where he had been born and his father had served. Maybe if he were halfway around the world he could forget about everything that had been done to him.

He returned to his bedchamber, his belly growing queasy, knowing he would be summoned to the duke’s side within the next hour or so once Sommersby had finished quizzing Cyril. He settled himself in the window seat, a copy of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe nestled in his lap. It was the latest assignment from the duke and one Finch actually had enjoyed reading. It was packed with adventures, unlike the dry sermons and boring histories he sometimes was required to read. He wondered if he and the duke would actually discuss any of the book.

Or get down to the usual business.

He leaned his head against the wall, closing his eyes, drifting away from Sommerville. Only a sharp rap on his door brought him back to the present. His gut tightened as the butler entered the bedchamber.

“His Grace requests your presence in his study, my lord.”

Always the study. Cyril was asked to the library but Finch was steered to the study, where the duke locked the door.

He rose, gripping his novel as he followed the butler downstairs and waited as the servant knocked on the door.

The moment he heard his grandfather’s voice call out to enter, his body no longer seemed his own. He put one foot in front of the other and stepped into the room. A fog seemed to descend upon his brain. Deep inside, Finch knew he did these things to protect himself. He would get through this encounter and then go and wash as usual, trying to scrub away the vileness that permeated him after these unholy meetings.

“Sit,” Sommersby commanded after he had locked the door and taken his seat.

Finch took the seat in front of the desk. The duke sat behind it. He wondered if his father had suffered through the same things and wished he could have five minutes with him again. Papa’s image continued to fade as time passed. Though Finch had tried to paint him from memory, the portrait always seemed off somehow.

“What did you think of the book?”

A part of him relaxed. They would talk about Crusoe’s adventures then. For a little while, he could put off the inevitable.

“It was very good, Your Grace.”

A sour expression crossed his grandfather’s face. “Good tells me nothing. Say it was interesting. Entertaining. Ludicrous. Boring. You must add color to your speech, my boy. Good is such pedestrian word choice. You can do much better, William. I demand it.”

Finch bit his tongue, wanting to tell this man he wasn’t his boy. He was his father’s boy and no other. That is why he demanded everyone call him Finch—because Papa had. He thought William too formal and had given Finch the nickname when he was still in the cradle. With Papa now gone, it was the only link he had with his father. Cyril always called him Finch and Mama usually did unless they were around the duke. He had slapped Mama when she had called him Finch. The old man said nicknames were childish and he would have none of that in his household.

Mama had never made that mistake again around the duke but she still called him Finch the few times they were alone.

“I asked you a question,” the duke said, his gaze penetrating Finch.

Guilt rose in him as he thought of how disappointed Papa would be in him. He remembered Papa as larger than life, a big man with a loud laugh and twinkling eyes. He would wish for any son of his to stand up for what was right.

What the Duke of Sommersby did was far from right.

Thoughts of his long-dead father filled Finch with determination. This would be the day he would finally say no. If he was forced, so be it. The time for silence and giving in was over. If the duke beat him to death, he didn’t care. It would mean his suffering had finally come to an end.

“Defoe’s work was amusing,” he said, gathering his courage, not knowing if he would strike the duke. Or run. Either way, he would take action.

Before Sommersby could continue, an odd expression crossed his face. Beads of sweat broke out across his wrinkled brow.

“I am dizzy,” he blurted out, clutching his arm and massaging it.

Finch sat there. The only thought that came to him was that he wouldn’t have to succumb to the usual treatment. He wouldn’t have to stand up for himself and argue. His grandfather looked fatigued, the color fading from his usually rosy cheeks. A sick duke wouldn’t be able to carry out his plans.

Sommersby stood, unsteady on his feet. He gripped the desk in front of him for support and then brought a hand to his chest.

“My chest,” he complained. “It is as if something is squeezing it. And my arm hurts.”

Suddenly, he went down, collapsing not in his chair but falling to the ground.

Finch leaped to his feet and hurried to the other side of the desk.

Sommersby looked up at him, desperation filling his eyes. “Help,” he croaked. “Get help.”

Finch stood rooted to the ground.

The duke wheezed, “I said . . .” His voice trailed off and he pushed both hands against his chest again, as if trying to tamp down the pain.

“No.” Finch said it quietly, void of emotion.

“You cannot do this,” his grandfather said, his tone attempting to muster enough menace to frighten Finch into action.

“No,” he repeated calmly, squatting close but just out of reach as the duke flung out a hand and tried to claw at his grandson.

“You hurt me every time I came through those doors. From the time I was five. I was a little boy. I am still a little boy. One who is your flesh and blood. One you should love.” He paused. “But you don’t. You only bring pain and humiliation. No comfort. No love.”

He rose, staring down as agony filled the old man’s face.

“Please,” the duke begged.

He shook his head. “I pleaded with you but you never listened to me. I won’t listen to you.”

With that, Finch returned to his seat, lifting the volume of Defoe he had left there and opening it. He ignored the gasps coming from behind the desk. The low moans. The mumbled curses. Instead, he read the words on the page, reading them aloud to block out what was going on in the room.

After several minutes, the noise ceased. He could hear no labored breathing. Quietly, Finch went and unlocked the door before going back to his seat. He returned to Defoe, this time silently saying the words in his mind.

A knock sounded on the door, bringing him out of the story. He forced himself to continue to stare at the page as he felt the door open and the slight rush of wind with the motion.

“Where is His Grace?” demanded Cousin Leonard.

The duke’s cousin had been staying at Sommerville the past week. He came every summer for a week or two and again at Christmas, having no family of his own.

“Behind the desk,” Finch said calmly.

Cousin Leonard’s puzzled look almost caused Finch to laugh but he kept a straight face as the man walked briskly across the room.

“No!” he cried, bending to the ground.

Finch went back to reading his book. He sensed movement around him. People coming and going. He continued to stare at the pages and turn them every now and then, ignoring the maelstrom surrounding him.

Then Mama touched his sleeve. “Finch, dear. Come with me.”

“Yes, Mama.” He rose dutifully and followed her from the room, which he observed was now empty.

They went to the drawing room, where Cousin Leonard paced. Cyril stood as they entered and hurried toward him.

“What did you do?” his brother demanded harshly, his face flushed with anger.

The question startled him. He thought Cyril would have been happy the old man was gone. The way his brother was glaring surprised him. Despite being brothers, they had never truly been close, especially since their return to England. Their interests were too varied.

“I am perfectly fine,” he replied, not answering Cyril’s question. He took a seat next to Mama.

Cousin Leonard ceased pacing and sat opposite them.

“What were you thinking, Finch?” he demanded.

Mama stroked his hair. “Finch was upset, weren’t you, darling?”

He sat, mute.

“His Grace fell from his chair—and you didn’t make a move to come to his aid?” the older man accused.

“No. He wanted me to read Defoe. That’s what I did.”

As he spoke, it was as if Finch floated outside his body. Cousin Leonard began shouting. Mama put an arm about Finch and kept talking. Cyril came and stood behind him, placing a hand on Finch’s shoulder, squeezing hard.

“Answer me!” Cousin Leonard demanded.

Finch drifted back into his body. “What?”

“You deliberately sat while your beloved grandfather died.”

“He wasn’t my beloved grandfather. He was my grandfather,” he said evenly. “Beloved is someone dear to you. I would say His Grace was unbeloved by me and everyone in this household.”

“See?” roared Cousin Leonard, spit flying everywhere. “This boy is a monster. He refused to lift a finger. His Grace might very well be alive if Finch had gone for help.”

“No, he wouldn’t have lived,” Finch told them. “He grabbed his chest. He was in pain. And then he was gone. At peace.”

The older man blinked in astonishment. “What kind of fiend watches his flesh and blood die before his eyes?”

“I didn’t see him die,” he said quietly. “I was reading as he told me to do.”

“He is mad,” accused Cousin Leonard.

Mama’s arm tightened about him. “No. He is in shock. Finch is a good boy.”

Good boys don’t deliberately sit and allow a duke to die,” hissed Cousin Leonard. “He should be punished.”

“I am now Duke of Sommersby,” Cyril said firmly. “I will decide if Finch should be punished.”

Finch turned his gaze to his brother, the new duke. Cyril seemed to stand taller now. But when their eyes met, he saw the questions in his brother’s eyes. The doubt. Finch knew that Cyril believed his brother to have been wrong.

He wasn’t wrong. Sommersby deserved to die for everything he had done. No one would ever make him feel differently.

Cousin Leonard shook his head vigorously. “You might be His Grace, young man, but I control you—and the purse strings. Your grandfather’s will names me as the executor of the estate and guardian of you boys. I will make all decisions until you reach your majority at age twenty-one.”

He wheeled from Cyril to Finch. “As for you, I know exactly where you will go.” Cousin Leonard paused. “Turner Academy. It is where they send vicious little brutes.”

“No!” cried Cyril. “Finch and I go to school together. I won’t have us separated.”

Cousin Leonard’s eyes narrowed. “You will do as I say—or your mother will be out on her ear.”

Mama gasped. Cyril looked lost. Cousin Leonard smiled triumphantly. Finch knew the trump card had been played. He didn’t care where he went to school. He would never again suffer as he had under Sommersby’s hand. No one would ever have the power to hurt him again.

“It’s all right,” he told Cyril. “I want to go to Turner Academy and be with boys like me.” He turned and embraced his mother. “You won’t have to go anywhere, Mama. Cousin Leonard will take care of you. You can continue to go to London for the Season. Now that His Grace is dead, you can finally look for a new husband.”

Finch had overheard the duke telling Mama that he forbid her from marrying again and if she did, he would keep her sons from her. He had heard Mama crying and knew she was lonely ever since Papa died.

He stood. “I won’t go to the funeral. You can say whatever you wish, Cousin Leonard. I don’t care what you or anyone else thinks of me.”

The older man grabbed Finch by the shoulders and shook him violently. It was nothing compared to what the duke had done to him and Finch took it without speaking.

“You will remain in your room until I can ship you off to Turner Academy. And as long as I am in charge of this household, you will never set foot at Sommerville again. I won’t have you dirtying the Finchley name, nor will I have you exercise any undue influence upon His Grace.”

He realized Cousin Leonard now referred to Cyril. He gave his brother a sad smile and saw in Cyril’s eyes that something had changed between them. That Cyril had thought Finch was wrong not to act and try to save a man who had brought suffering to them both. In this moment, he felt as if they were no longer brothers. They were a duke and an unwanted relative. The bond Finch thought would never be broken now unraveled.

“I suppose you are right, Cousin,” Cyril said, relenting. He turned to Finch. “This is for the best. We will be apart for a little while and then when I reach my majority, you will be allowed to come home.” He paused. “I don’t understand why you did what you did, Finch. I hope that you will mature and eventually forgive yourself for your role in Grandfather’s death.”

Cyril might think he was sincere but doubt filled Finch. At this point, he never wanted to return to Sommerville again. Too many horrid memories filled him. Leaving for this new school would be a blessing. And if he lived to be ninety, he would never spend one day regretting what had occurred today in the duke’s study.

Finch turned his gaze to the man before him and smiled. “Then I guess this is goodbye, Cousin Leonard.”

He walked out and returned to his room. Relief swept through him. Mama now had a chance to find happiness again. Cyril would complete his studies through university. The boys could bide their time until Cyril reached his majority. Hopefully, by then, Cyril would see why Finch had acted the way he had and Cyril would find it in his heart to forgive his brother.

Most important of all, Finch was finally free.