Duchess Takes All

by Jamaila Brinkley

The newest Duchess of Edgebourne stared at the dirty boy in front of her, then shifted her gaze to her husband and stepson. The duke’s lips were twisted in grim, wistful regret; his heir met her eyes with innocent hope.

Cecilia Dalton had worn her new last name and its venerated title for only a few weeks. She loved her husband dearly, and was coming to adore ten year old Thomas, a quiet boy who was growing into a scholar like his father but often seemed lost around other people. He needed a mother for many reasons, and she was eager to be one for many more. They were becoming quite a cozy family, she thought.

And now, family called her further.

She knelt. “What’s your name?” she asked the boy.

He eyed her silently.

“His name is Jack,” Andrew said.

She rolled her eyes at him, making sure that the boy saw her do it. “I’m sure he knows that, dear.” There was a hint of a smile, quickly suppressed in the thin face. “Tell me, Jack, if you could be anywhere but here, where would you be?”

“My Papa’s ship,” he said.

His Papa’s ship was at the bottom of the sea, and Cecilia thanked every deity she could think of that Captain Boone and his lady wife – Andrew’s cousin – had elected to leave their son home for this trip. Though why they had left him in the care of a haphazard nanny instead of simply sending him here in the first place, she hadn’t any idea.

Sarah Boone’s will had included a plea to her cousin that he do right by her son. To Andrew, who hadn’t seen his cousin – his mother’s sister’s child – since they’d been very young, that request meant rather more than other men of his station might have taken it; he’d immediately made arrangements to make Jack Boone part of his family, and only remembered to ask his new wife if it was all right as the boy was arriving on their doorstep.

Cecilia imagined what her father might have said about such a request. He might have grudgingly set up an allowance; he might have scoffed and ignored it, and left Jack in the tiny shanty in Dover and never thought of him again.

She looked back and forth between Jack’s blue eyes, smeared with the dust of travel and tears and who knew what else, and Thomas’ hazel ones, fastened upon his newfound cousin with wonder.

“Well, Jack,” she said, “Do you think you might stay with us instead? I promise to find a way to get you on board a ship, when you’re a bit older.” She leaned closer. “Perhaps you might even find a place aboard for your cousin.”

Jack eyed Thomas dubiously, then sniffed. “He’d have to earn his keep,” he said.

Thomas frowned, and looked down.

Cecilia smiled. “Perhaps we can bargain for it.” She held out her hand, and he tentatively put his fingers in hers. “What do you say?”

He looked up at her, a lost little boy in a tiny sailor’s body. “I can stay?”

“Forever, if you like,” she said.

 

Two Years Later

This time, the boy in front of her was clean, but he sported rather a massive shiner around his left eye. Black hair fell in front of his other eye, as though to hide the fact that he was a perfectly normal boy. She looked at Thomas and Jack, recognizing the hope in their eyes, as well as the worry. She could sense the churning magical energy surrounding the boy in front of her, who it seemed had been very ill used indeed.

“His name is Duncan,” Thomas said quietly.

“But he probably knows,” Jack said, meeting her eyes with a half-smile.

Andrew stood behind them, lips twitching. They’d found their way, the two of them, in marriage and life. He knew what would happen as well as she did. Although she did wonder if he knew just what he himself was signing up for. Thomas’ magic had begun to surface last year, and she had some strong suspicions that Jack might have the talent as well. He would be better at hiding it if he wanted to, of course. Not that she wouldn’t find out eventually. But Duncan… she stifled a sigh. The future Earl of Kilgoran was going to test them all, she thought with a flash of insight. Focus and control lessons would be in order for everyone. And a lot of love.

“Well, Duncan,” she said. “Would you like to stay?”

“For as long as my father will allow it,” he said, watching her carefully. She was reminded painfully of the wounded puppy Thomas had found in the stables last spring. They’d nursed it back to health together, as a family.

“You let me take care of that,” she said, reaching out to tuck the heavy locks of hair behind his ear. “Would you like something to eat?”

She was beginning to understand boys rather well.

Later that night, after a tumultuously silent dinner, Andrew turned to her in their bed. “I’m sorry, my love,” he said. “I never expected to saddle you with three unhappy boys.”

“I can’t think of anything I’d like more than to work with you to make them happy ones,” she said, reaching up to touch his cheek. “And-“ she turned the touch into a caress. “-perhaps to make a few more happy children.” She smiled as he pulled her to him. Not quite time to tell him what she suspected, after more than two years of marriage, but certainly plenty of time to keep in practice.

 

Ten Years Later

With shaking fingers, she unfolded the letter. It was written in Serena’s elegant script, the same hand that had helped her to write out her own wedding invitations and send cards for countless balls.

Dear Cecilia,

I have always wanted to tell you how very grateful I am for you. You have taken on the sometimes thankless task of loving my brother, and done it so well that he has become a better man for it. And you have been such a remarkable mother, to his son and your own children as well as to dear Thomas’ ‘strays’.

If you are reading this letter, I am afraid that it means I will never have the chance to express my gratitude. And yet, that gratitude compels me to write, and to beg you one last favor in case this letter ever need be read…

Cecilia Dalton looked up at the end of the letter. “Of course I will,” she told the solicitor. “As if there was ever any question.”

She came out of the study and made her way urgently through the family and well-wishers lingering sadly about Edgebourne House. Finally, she found them. Huddled miserably with – of course – Thomas, in the conservatory. Two little girls, in hastily-assembled black gowns, disconsolate and afraid. Two pairs of big brown eyes peeked out at her from beneath her stepson’s protective arm, tears streaking tiny pale faces.

She knelt, and held out her arms. “Hello, darlings,” she said. “Would you like to stay with us?”

 

Want more of the Edgebournes? Check out (grown-up) Thomas’ story, Thieves’ Honor!

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