Nothing Magical about Midnight
Cheshire, June 1797
“Davis, send for the physician at once. The Duke is ill.”
Colin Middleton, Lord Ellsworth, gently lowered his father onto a settee in his study as the servant tore from the room. The duke, absolutely pale, grasped his son’s shoulders, his eyes wide, sweat beading at his brow.
“Your Grace,” Colin said, swallowing deeply to dampen the fear starting to take hold. He’d only arrived at Stormount a few hours ago, eager to escape the incessant society gossip in London. He’d greeted his parents, who both seemed well if not for their rather insistent hovering about his decidedly bachelor state, and fussing over his freshly sprained wrist. All was, in effect, as it always had been.
“My boy.” His father’s words came out as little more than a strained whisper as his grasped Colin’s hand.
“The doctor is on his way,” Colin said, wishing the man here at once. Of course, even with the fastest horses, it would still take nearly an hour for the physician to arrive, and only if he wasn’t out on his regular afternoon visits. In a vain attempt at usefulness, Colin pulled out his handkerchief, gently wiped away the beads of perspiration from his father’s brow, and plastered what he hoped was a smile of encouragement on his face. As the only son and heir of the Duke of Weymouth, he’d prepared his entire life to assume the duties that would become his. But he was not ready to lose his father.
His mother’s gasp tore his attention to the door, where she paused, her eyes wide with her own fear, before she ran toward them. Mrs. Cooper, Stormount’s housekeeper, followed close behind with a small bottle in her hand.
“George,” his mother called in a soothing voice reserved for both men in her life in moments of fear. The normally bright and occasionally overbearing demeanor of the Duchess of Weymouth had transformed into something softer, though still with a hint of steel. She knelt beside the settee, and cast a look of thinly disguised worry at her son. “How long has he been like this?”
“But a few moments. We were speaking about London and of Lord and Lady Grafton’s son. It was not heated in any way,” Colin said. Indeed, he’d expected some grief for attending the baptism of his ex-fiancé’s son, but he’d been bloody well invited and he’d wanted to see the thing done and over with. “Indeed, his Grace seemed more preoccupied with my wrist and if it was going to interfere with this afternoon’s excursion on Long Pond.”
They were going to go fishing, Colin and his father. It was the duke’s lifelong passion, and Stormount was an estate blessed with a small river that ran through it and a pond which his father had made larger and stocked with fish.
His mother nodded solemnly then gestured with an outstretched had to Mrs. Cooper, who pulled the stopper from the small brown bottle in her hand and gave it to the duchess. Mother, in turn, put the vessel to her husband’s lips. She allowed him only a small sip of the contents before giving the bottle back to the housekeeper.
In a moment his father’s terror seemed to subside, and his color returned. He was not himself, but not as excitable as when the fit first took him.
“Jane, my darling,” his father said in little more than a whisper as his gaze rested on his wife.
She nodded, and Colin caught the brightness in her eyes from tears she no doubt feared to shed. His mother was a force, and even this hairline crack in her normally robust armor did nothing to alleviate Colin’s sensation of the gravity of his father’s condition.
“Thank you, Mrs. Cooper,” she said, her gaze never leaving her husband’s. “Have Davis bring the duke some tea and his favorite biscuits.”
The housekeeper nodded and left to his mother’s bidding while his mother looked over to Colin, her mouth in a grim, if resolute line, her normally composed countenance strained by the duke’s condition.
“Help me up, Colin.” She held out her arm. “It is easier to get down on my knees than to get back on my feet, I’m afraid.”
Colin went to his mother’s side, helped her up, and brought a chair so she could sit next to the duke. She smiled lovingly at her son and husband, never letting go of her husband’s hand.
“How are you, Father?” Colin asked, crouched down, his hand on his father’s shoulder.
“A little better,” he replied, his breathing more measured. “In another hour I am certain I shall be quite recovered, and we can continue with our excursion. I shall have Davis send word to Mr. Campbell that our plans are merely delayed.”
Colin looked to his mother, who held a decidedly neutral countenance.
“With respect, perhaps you should retire to your bed until the physician can pronounce your health,” Colin said. “I am not especially keen to assume the title just yet.”
“There is no need for the physician,” his father said, still holding on to Colin’s handkerchief. He cast a glance at the duchess, and Colin had the distinct feeling an entire conversation had occurred between them without either of them uttering a word. “Not today, at least.”
“Father, this is exactly the sort of episode that requires the physician’s expertise.”
“Your father will not listen to me,” he mother said, her voice in her more usual huff, which somehow brought Colin a certain level of relief.
“He has provided me with some tonic,” the duke protested with a bit more vigor, the terror that had gripped him clearly subsiding. He patted his chest, and Colin could not help but be struck by how fragile his father seemed just a moment ago. His father had passed five and sixty only two years ago, and was by all accounts a hearty and hale sort who enjoyed the outdoor pursuits of fishing and overseeing work in Stormount’s formidable gardens. His reddish-blond hair had faded to mostly gray, but his back was still straight and his health troubles few—until now.
“Tonic?” Colin frowned, his gaze darting to his mother. “How long have these episodes been happening?”
“Not long after Yuletide,” his mother offered. “While you were in Yorkshire, chasing after whatever it was you were chasing after.”
Colin adjusted his spectacles on his nose, and pressed his lips together. “A meteorite, Mother. A bit of rock that fell from the heavens and fell into Mr. Shipley’s garden.” He’d gone to take extensive notes and drawings of this bit of wonder that had fallen in the village of Wold. He’d also gone to make a last and futile visit to Lady Amelia, who was visiting with relations nearby. He’d heard the rumors that the gentleman Amelia had thrown Colin over for was miraculously out of her life. Tossing common sense and all the rules of society aside, Colin had stood at the door of the great house, preparing to throw himself at her feet and beg her to be his once again.
Her husband, Lord Grafton, greeted Colin at the door. So much for rumor. Two days later she returned a small stack of letters that he’d sent since she’d left him. All were unopened. With them was a note she’d penned, clearly stating that whatever affection had existed between them had come from one direction, and it had never been hers.
It was the first of two brushes with misguided passion that winter. Only a few days after, he and several of his companions were nearly killed by a long-lost kin, who’d blamed Colin and the entire aristocracy for the circumstances that had robbed him of what he felt was his rightful place as Duke of Weymouth. Before the night was over, the man was dead after a struggle with Colin in the bitter cold, in which physics—and a bit of luck, Colin conceded—spared his life.
After that, Colin had decided he’d had quite enough of passion. It was much easier on everyone if misguided passion was kept in the pages of tawdry novels, while real life—his life—was dictated by rules. By order.
A light snore coming from his father broke through Colin’s reverie. He rose and positioned his father more comfortably, all the while breathing a sigh of relief. For the moment his father appeared to be resting as if nothing had happened.
“Are they getting worse, these episodes?” Colin asked his mother, whose haunted gaze twisted his gut.
She shook her head. “They come and go, with no apparent pattern,” she said at last. “The tonic helps to calm his heart and there seems to be few ill effects from it. But one day, I fear he will not recover.”
Colin reached out and took his mother’s hand. She was as vulnerable as he could ever recall seeing her.
“I pray that day is still far in the future,” he replied. “And you know when that day comes I will be here for you.”
They sat in contented silence for some time, and soon Dr. Plover arrived. He checked the duke’s pulse and listened to his chest. There was little that could be done, he told them, but to ensure that the duke was not given to intense excitement that might strain his heart. But there was nothing more he could offer. He left, giving Colin no more reassurance than he had before he arrived.
“You must marry, Colin.” His mother’s voice broke through the silence that had settled on the room after the physician’s departure. It was not a plea, nor an order, but rather a simple statement of fact. “Your cousin, Lord Mumford, has just had his third son in as many years. He is a dissolute man who looks eagerly to Weymouth to replenish his misspent coffers. Your father will be settled, at least, knowing the estate and the title is in order,” she said, not taking her eyes from her husband. “And the sooner, the better.”
Order. The word settled on Colin’s shoulders like a balm in this moment of fear and uncertainty. He’d been avoiding the very subject of marriage since Lady Amelia Grafton threw him off on the eve of their wedding and dashed off with a Scottish lord who was now her husband. Colin had gone between shutting himself off from the idea to foolishly attempting to win back her affection. When he’d attended the baptism of her child, he finally realized how much energy he’d wasted—how much of his heart he’d wasted, devoted to someone who would never ever love him in return. But it was not until this moment that he appreciated how much uncertainly he’d left in his parents’ lives.
He stood, casting a glance at his father, still resting, and then his mother. An unmarried heir, particularly at his age, was stretching the rules.
And Colin knew the rules.
He would find a wife. Someone who would never tempt him with passion, or send his world into chaos. He would fulfill his duty, make his parents happy, and get married. Provide an heir. And when that business was done, he could go back to the one part of his life that demanded nothing of him. Lofton Tower and his telescope.
“Very well. What is the quickest way to find a wife?”