OSBURT LAYTHAM was a favorite of James I. Under His Majesty’s charter, Osburt sailed to the Indies, and on his return with untold wealth, as well as a valued treaty, he was rewarded with first a knighthood and then a baronetcy and the estate he renamed Fayerweather.
Sir Osburt had brought with him an exotic bride, a black-haired, sloe-eyed beauty who was dowered with a fortune in jewels. Among those jewels was a ruby the size of her fist. This ruby had been given the name Flame of Diabul, because when held up to the light, there appeared to be a flame burning within its depths.
Over the span of generations, the fortune of the Laythams gradually shrank, until all that was left was Fayerweather and the Flame, and the legend that if ever the ruby passed out of Laytham hands, a dire fate would befall the man who allowed it.
I WAS a child of seven the first time I saw Laytham Hall, too young to realize the country was in mourning for the passing of our monarch, King George III. I thought everyone was grieving with me for the loss of my parents.
Laytham Hall was a large and sprawling pile of grey stone, with a small portico shielding the double doors that opened into the Great Hall. Nestled at the heart of Fayerweather, its somber façade was covered with ivy, and wintry sunlight sparkled on the frost that etched the numerous paned windows, but lovely as it was, at that time it was not my home, and I did not want to be there.
The Laytham line had dwindled along with the family fortune until there were just three sons. Eustace, the eldest, would one day inherit the baronetcy. He had an unpredictable temper as well as a tendency to bully those who dared not fight back, and was not much liked by anyone, even his own parents.
Osburt was the youngest. In the normal course of events, he would have been destined for the church, but he was reputed to be wild to a fault and had been cast out of the family by the old baronet. After the passing of many years with no word from him, it was considered that in all likelihood his rakehell ways had led to his death.
Archibald, the middle son, was my Papa. Grandpapa would have bought him his colors, but the military held no appeal to him, and instead, because his godfather had left him a tidy sum, he moved to London and chose to spend his time trying to set the newest fashion in neckcloths and waistcoats, and in racketing about Town. There was still a goodly amount left of his inheritance when he met Mama whilst visiting with friends in the Cotswolds.
Mama was a vicar’s daughter, sweet-tempered and sweet-faced with the most lovely brown eyes, sadly hidden behind the frames of her thick spectacles, the last woman on earth one would think to attract my father. He persuaded her to elope with him to Gretna Green, and while his elder brother Eustace, who by that time had become sixth baronet and the only surviving family member, shrugged indifferently, Mama’s father was livid—her destiny was to care for him, the vicarage, and his congregation, not marry some rakehell, and so he predicted gloom, doom, and penurious misery for her and her offspring, and disowned her.
He was quite surprised when I did not arrive until two years later and grudgingly tried to make amends, but by that time the rift between him and Mama was too deep. She rebuffed his half-hearted attempts, and so I grew up with no contact with him. That was why, when my parents were drowned in a boating accident while crossing the Channel when I was seven, I was sent to Laytham Hall.
“Oh, you poor child!” Aunt Cecily, Uncle Eustace’s wife, did not have children of her own. She enveloped me in a fragrant embrace, but it was not my Mama’s scent, and instead of returning her embrace, I held myself stiffly. Her enthusiasm dampened, she released me, and I could only be relieved.
“Well, you would insist upon taking him in,” Uncle growled at her. “Rude brat. Not much to look at either, is he?” A frown furrowed his brow, and he flicked a fingertip against the spectacles I perforce had worn from the time I was a tot and Papa realized it was not clumsiness that caused me to fall down stairs or walk into walls but my poor eyesight that was at the bottom of it.
Aunt Cecily sighed.
No, I was not a handsome child, but I had been loved. Would I ever be loved again?
Uncle snorted. “If it were not for the Laytham mark….” On my forearm, it was the shape and size of a penny and the deep red color of the Flame. He’d roughly shoved up the sleeve of my shirt, and then had thrown my arm away from him in disgust, although I didn’t know why. “I would have wagered that Maria played my brother false. If we must have a brat about the house that is not mine, you will at least keep him out of my sight.”
Uncle took pleasure in blaming Aunt Cecily for the fact that after ten years of marriage, they were still childless.
Her mouth tightened, but she said nothing. Mama, as sweet-tempered as she was, would have taken Papa severely to task for speaking like that to her. Mama… Papa… I missed them so much and wanted them back.
Aunt Cecily tugged the bellpull, and within moments Colling, the butler who had come to Laytham Hall with her upon her marriage to Uncle Eustace, entered the room.
“Yes, Colling. Master Ashton will be residing with us. The nursery has been prepared. See to it that one of the maids has a care to him until we can find a nurse or a governess.”
I was too unhappy to protest that I was too old for a nurse and that I would much prefer a tutor to a governess.
Colling peered down at me from his great height, and I could tell he did not care for me. However, he nodded. “If you’ll come with me, Master Ashton?”
“Please.” I turned to my uncle and aunt, struggling to keep my upper lip firm. “Please, I want to go home.”
“Do not snivel, boy! This is your home now,” Uncle Eustace growled. He was altogether too fond of growling, and I cringed away. “I do not wish to see him when I am at home; is that plain, Colling? You will inform the rest of the staff in this matter.”
“Yes, Sir Eustace. Master Ashton?” He took my hand and tried to lead me from the room.
“I will not go with you!” I shouted. “I want to go home!” I jerked free and ran back to Aunt Cecily, throwing myself at her and clinging to her skirts. “Please, Aunt!”
“Brat!” Uncle Eustace yanked me free of his wife, hurting me in the process. “Must I do everything myself?” His fingers closed about my wrist painfully, and in spite of the way I dug in my heels, he dragged me along after him.
“No!” I tugged on my wrist and, when he would not release me, sank my teeth into his hand.
“Enough of this!” He gritted his teeth and struck me hard enough to knock my spectacles askew, and I stared up at him in utter shock. I had never been struck before in my life. “Now behave, or I shall give you a hiding you will never forget!”
Terrified, I let him grasp my arm and pull me along. We seemed to climb and climb. Finally he opened a door and flung me inside.
“You are to stay here until you can find some manners; is that understood, you miserable whelp?” He glared down at his hand, which was bleeding sluggishly, then took out a handkerchief and wrapped the wound. “Colling, see to him.”
“Yes, Sir Eustace.” The butler must have followed us up with the small portmanteau that held all the belongings I had been permitted to pack. “I will see that one of the maids brings him his meals. However, if he is a biter, I cannot guarantee….”
“No, no. I would not expect you to, Colling. Deuce take it, he could cost me the servants, and God knows Lady Laytham complains enough about how difficult it is to keep them.”
Colling’s face looked as if it were carved from wood. “As you say, Sir Eustace.”
“If no one will bring him his meals, he will just have to go hungry.” There was satisfaction in his words, and with that, Uncle turned on his heel and left me there.
Colling gazed down at me, regarding with dispassion the bruise I could feel blooming on my cheek. “I will send Jane with a supper tray. You would do well to heed Sir Eustace’s words and not attempt to bite her.” He left also, closing the door behind him, and I heard the key turn in the lock.
I stood at the window and kept my back to the door when Jane entered.
“I’ve your tea, Master Ashton. I’ll just leave it here on this little table, then.”
Ashamed and mortified at having been struck, I refused to acknowledge her presence, and while she tried to make me feel welcome to some degree and chattered as she laid a fire in the corner fireplace and set about unpacking my meager belongings, she finally fell silent at my unresponsiveness.
“Well, I’m done. Ring if you need anything, Master Ashton. But it won’t be me as is coming up here again,” she muttered as she closed the door behind her, and again the key was turned in the lock.
Unseen by anyone, the tears slid down my cheeks.
FIRST impressions. Can one ever overcome them?
By the time I began to recover from my parents’ loss, the damage had been done, and I’d gained a reputation as a sulky, disobedient, ungrateful child.
Uncle Eustace was rarely at home, for which I was not the only one who was grateful.
Aunt Cecily was confined to her bed for some reason that was unspoken in my presence, and when she finally emerged, she was pale and wan, and there was a quiet grief about her. She spent what little time she could with me, but before we could develop any kind of warmth toward each other, she received a message in the post, and the household was thrown into turmoil once again.
“Oh, dear God!” Aunt Cecily murmured brokenly.
“What is wrong, Aunt?”
She looked up at me blindly, tears trickling down her cheeks, and her lips quivered. “Marian Hood has died!”
“Beg pardon, I’m sure, but who is Marian Hood?”
“She is… was a dear friend of mine. We married around the same time, although hers was a love match. They followed the drum. The loss of her Robert came as a great blow to her. He was a brigade major in the _nth Foot, and he fell at Waterloo, leaving her a widow with three sons and no means to raise them. She remarried—a Frederick Pettigrew—shortly thereafter.” Aunt Cecily frowned. “I did not have much opportunity to see her, although we had a prolific correspondence. Mr. Pettigrew wanted a son of his own, and finally succeeded, only to lose the child and the mother in childbirth.”
I realized how distressed she must be to say something like that in my presence. “I am very sorry, Aunt,” I said politely, but she did not appear to hear me.
“My poor, dear Marian. And those poor, poor boys! They have lost their mother and a baby brother, as well as their beloved father. As for their stepfather….” She sniffed. “Mr. Pettigrew is drinking himself into an early grave and neglects the boys shamefully. Her sister Vivien writes to me, begging for my assistance. She has six children of her own, and cannot take in young Robert, John, and William. Oh, of course they may come to live with me! I must write Vivien at once!”
“Three sons?” That sparked my interest. There were no boys of quality in the neighborhood of Fayerweather—Lord Hasbrouck’s sons were grown and away, and Squire Newbury only had girls—and while I had no objection to befriending the lads in the stable, both Aunt Cecily and Uncle Eustace did.
“Colling, inform Thomas Coachman that I wish him to take the landau to Panton Square,” she instructed the butler. “They will need a woman’s tender presence,” she murmured to herself. “I shall send Flowers to fetch them home!” She bustled away to speak with her maid.
And so, overriding Uncle Eustace’s objections for once, Aunt Cecily had the Hood brothers come to live at Laytham Hall.
Almost shivering with anticipation, I lingered in the suite of rooms the brothers would be given as the maids prepared them. Of course I was sorry for their loss, but here was an opportunity for me to make friends with boys of my own class!
The sounds of a carriage pulling up in the courtyard had me pelting down the stairs, but I drew up at the bottom and walked decorously to the entryway, waiting until they entered the Hall.
The two older Hoods were almost the same height, a few inches taller than me, in spite of the fact that we were of an age, while the youngest was a few inches shorter. Their hair varied from shades of light brown to raven’s-wing-black, but their eyes were the same bright, startling blue.
“How do you do?” I shyly offered my hand to the brothers. “I am Ashton Laytham.”
Neither of the two older boys made an effort to shake my hand, and when the youngest attempted to, Robert stopped him.
“You’re Awful Ashton. We’ve heard of you.”
I felt myself turn pale and dropped my hand. I had never heard that appellation before. “What? How…?”
“We overheard the woman Aunt Cecy sent talking with Aunt Vivien’s housekeeper as they packed for us.” The two exchanged glances and sniggered, and then the third joined them, although it was apparent he did not understand their amusement. “They didn’t even realize we could hear them. Grown-ups don’t tend to pay children much mind, or haven’t you learned that yet, Awful?”
I ignored that. Was that how they thought of me below stairs? My eyes burned, but I’d learned shortly after I’d arrived at Fayerweather that tears neither helped nor solved anything.
Aunt Cecily arrived upon the scene just then and swept all three of them into an encompassing embrace. “My poor, poor boys! You will do well here, for I shall look after you! Ah. Ashton. You have met Robert, John, and William. How fortuitous. You may show them their rooms and help carry their portmanteaux.”
“I do not think so, Aunt. I have lessons.” I turned and left them. Obviously they had no need of friends, for they had each other.
They were handsome children, everyone said as much, and Aunt Cecily turned her attention to them, doting on them as she had never doted on me.
Shortly afterwards, there was a period of subdued excitement.
“Aunt Cecy is in an interesting condition,” Robert said knowledgably.
“You aren’t very bright, are you, Awful? She is expecting a baby.”
The three brothers burst into laughter and walked out of the room, shaking their heads, murmuring to each other of my stupidity.
But truly, were not babies born of love? And there was no love lost between my uncle and his wife. I was aware of that if the brothers were not.
Aunt Cecily was so happy for a time, but then she retired to her rooms for a number of weeks, and when she emerged, she was once again wan and melancholy, although the Hoods managed to make her smile upon occasion.
Two years later, Arabella Marchand, a cousin’s daughter, another orphan, arrived. Aunt Cecily smiled and clapped her hands. “How splendid! I have a daughter now, and the family is complete!”
An angelic-looking young girl, Arabella had glossy golden ringlets and eyes of cerulean blue, and everyone loved her on sight, spoiling her as no one had ever thought to spoil me.
It hurt, for I missed the affection my parents had so lavishly showered upon me. I determined, since I had already been given the appellation “Awful,” that I would show them how very awful I could be, and so I became as obnoxious as I knew how in revenge.
Robert insisted I be included in their games—after all, who would be the villain? I, as the heir to Fayerweather, should have been the leader. However, Robert claimed the role of Robin Hood for himself—“Am I not called Robin?”—and wore the jaunty green cap with the sweeping feather he had cajoled Aunt Cecily into giving him from one of her bonnets. And of course John was Little John, while William assumed the role of Will Scarlet.
I, on the other hand, was deemed worthy only of being the Sheriff of Nottingham, or on occasion, Guy of Gisbourne. At any rate, none of the brothers would have followed my orders anyway.
On that day in particular, William, the youngest Hood, had taken an ugly splinter in his leg from the stick that substituted as my sword, and Robert had glowered at me. “This is your fault!” he snarled. “Little John, fetch something to remove the arrow.”
John scampered off, and I crossed my arms and glared at Robert. “That is not an arrow.”
“It is if I say it is!” He turned to his injured brother. “Now, Will Scarlet, I shall cut the arrow out of your leg!”
“Yes, Robin.” The stupid little git would no doubt say, Yes, Robin, even if his brother told him, William, I am going to take off your leg.
John returned before too long with a penknife I recognized as Uncle Eustace’s. “I’m telling Aunt Cecily!” I declared. One of us needed to use common sense. Aside from which, if it was discovered as missing, I was the one who would catch bloody hell.
“You’d cry rope on us?” Robert’s face darkened, and he took a threatening step toward me. I forced myself to stand fast.
Arabella exhibited her displeasure by kicking me in the shins, and the three brothers laughed.
Robert dismissed my presence and unfolded the blade. William’s eyes grew huge, and his lower lip trembled, for it suddenly looked as large as Cook’s carving knife.
“None of that now, young William. You’re a Hood! Here, take this piece of wood and bite down on it if the pain becomes too much. Not that it should.”
“Yes, Robin.” William obeyed him, and I curled my lip in disdain.
Robert nodded in satisfaction, then said, “Chin up, stout fellow,” and began to dig out the splinter.
Arabella clutched William’s hand. “You are being so brave, Will Scarlet!”
“It… it does not hurt very much. Honestly, Belle. I mean Maid Marian.” He bit down hard on the wood, his complexion turning green.
“Got the bugger!” Robert exclaimed triumphantly. Arabella clapped her hands over her ears, but she giggled.
The blood flowed freely, and I sat down abruptly, feeling lightheaded.
Arabella tore off a strip of her petticoat, dabbed at the wound, and then bound it. “Are you feeling better, Will?” She petted his arm.
He nodded, but Robin Hood gave a dramatic moan. “No! Too late! We were too late! The arrowhead must have been dipped in poison! You’ll pay for this treachery, Sheriff, you and your dastardly Prince John!” He shook his fist at me, then turned back to his youngest brother. “But for now—Will Scarlet died an honorable death. We must give him a hero’s funeral!”
“Dying from a wound gone putrid isn’t heroic!” I grumbled.
“None of that, Sheriff! It was through your actions…. Hold on a tick! John, we need… no, you already risked all to fetch the knife for the field surgery. I shall go in search of the valiant warrior! You lot dig the grave!”
“I don’t see why I should have to!” I kicked at a tussock of grass.
But Robert raced off, and as usual, the others paid me no heed, instead scraping out a shallow hole in the ground near the pond’s edge.
It seemed Robert was gone a good three quarters of an hour, but perhaps I had that wrong. I grew bored and wanted to visit the stable, where at least the grooms treated me well and one of the stable boys was friendly to me, but I was shouted down.
Eventually Robert came jogging out of the Hall.
“Sorry, chaps. Had to go… er… searching. See what I found!” It was a lead soldier with the Tarleton helmet of the Light Dragoons, his coat painted madder red and his collar royal blue.
“I say, that’s… that belongs to me!” A friend of Aunt Cecily had given the set to me one Christmas, before the Hoods arrived and he realized he preferred the brothers to me.
Robert sneered, not a pleasant expression, and he placed the soldier into the “grave” and tossed a handful of dirt into it. “I am the resurrection and the life, sayeth the Lord…,” he intoned with righteous zeal. His eyes took on a faraway look, and I curled my lip in disdain, but he was so wrapped in his visions of nobility that he didn’t see. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death….”
Arabella sniffled. Being unable to stand, William sat to attention. John stood beside him, his bugle in hand.
I sulked. It was my soldier, after all, and it had been commandeered without even a “by your leave.”
At William’s other side stood Robert, his eyes lit with almost militant fervor. “Wouldn’t it be wizard to fight a final, desperate battle against overwhelming odds, chaps?”
“As Father did, Robin?”
“Yes, just as Father did!” His expression became wistful. “Father… he lies buried in a mass grave at the crossroads of Quatre-Bras. When I fall….”
“I shall see to it you have a hero’s send-off, Robin!” John rested his hand on his brother’s shoulder.
“I, also!” William chimed in.
“And I imagine you’ll visit his grave each year on the anniversary of when he fell and leave flowers?” I scowled, hunched a shoulder, and turned away. “What rot!”
But it would have been as well if I’d spared my breath.
“Thank you, chaps.” Robert cleared his throat. “Now, bugler, if you will?”
John raised his bugle to his lips and began to play Last Post, and I came to a reluctant halt, taken by the haunting notes in spite of myself. He drew in a breath and blew, drew in a breath and blew, and he did it so earnestly, never once hitting a sour note.
He had toyed with that bugle often and often, but this time…. It occurred to me how very beautiful he was, with his thick brown hair falling haplessly into astonishingly blue eyes, and it was then that I tumbled helplessly, hopelessly in love with him.
But it was not until six years later, on my seventeenth birthday, when we were all down from school, that I made lo—had John Hood the first time.