The Portrait of Lady Wycliff

By: Cheryl Bolen

(The Lords of Eton, Book 1)




Prologue


Eton, 1804



Each year since he'd come to Eton at the age of nine, Harry Blassingame, now the Earl of Wycliff, had eagerly looked forward to the end of term. When the days began to lengthen and the sun's warmth to strengthen, he would glory in the knowledge that he'd soon be returning to Cartmoor Hall. His beautiful mother would make a great fuss over him, and he and his father would take long rides over their estate.

But this year—his last at the school where he'd spent nearly half of his eighteen years—the end of term seized him with melancholy. He could no longer go home to Cartmoor. It was being let to strangers. Both his parents had been put to rest in Cartmoor's family vault. And now he would forfeit his two closest friends in all the world.

It was to the chambers of one of those fellows he and Jack St. John—Sinjin—were headed. In spite of being the lowly third son of a duke, the resident of the fine chambers, Lord Alex Haversham, claimed by far the loftiest rooms of the three, owing to the fact he possessed the heftiest purse of the trio.

This would be their farewell.

During their walk from Sissingham House, Sinjin had been uncommonly quiet. After so many years of friendship, Harry had come to read his friend as one recalls lines of a beloved poem. Gloom had settled over his normally pragmatic companion. Sinjin, too, loathes this parting.

Nothing could ever destroy the friendships forged over half a lifetime, but nothing between them would ever again be as it was now. They all knew this.

Younger boys with parents on either side of them emptied from the residential houses along the way, and their servants lagged behind, bearing trunks that held the lads' belongings.

Each step closer to Haversham brought them closer to that painful leave-taking. Harry felt as if a steel cloak weighted his shoulders as they entered Strong House and began to climb the wooden stairs to their friend's chambers. As they reached the landing outside of Haversham's door, a young woman with tousled hair emerged from their friend's chamber. Harry's gaze whisked over her. She was dressed as a youthful male servant.

He and Sinjin gave sheepish smiles to one another. Alex Haversham was quite the lady's man. Young or old, low born or high, females freely bestowed their affections on this well-liked duke's son, even knowing there was no chance for a permanent union  .

When the two passed through the cream-coloured door to their friend's chamber, Haversham looked up with glassy eyes. A half-empty decanter of brandy and three empty glasses reposed on the table in front of him. His arm made a sweeping gesture toward it. "Do help yourselves." They each poured a glass, and the newcomers sat upon a velvet sofa facing their host.

"I wonder when the three of us will be able to get together again." Haversham drew in a deep breath. "All these years we've done everything together." He eyed the others, and their nods confirmed. "My papa's bought me colours, and I leave for the Peninsula next week."

Harry's first thought was like the stab of a rapier. Alex Haversham could be killed in battle. He fought against showing just how scared he was for his friend. "God, it could be years before you return to England!"

The duke's son nodded grimly as he gazed at Harry. "And you? What will you do?"

"I'm leaving England, too."

Haversham straightened up to face Harry squarely. "You're not joining the army!"

Of course his friend knew he hadn't the funds with which to buy a commission. Harry shook his head. "No. I'm going to sea."

"In the Royal Navy?" Sinjin asked.

"Not exactly. I have a plan to restore the Wycliff coffers."

Two pair of brows lowered while his friends pondered his response. Then Haversham's eyes rounded. "You're not going to be a pirate, are you?"

Harry did not answer for a moment. "I wouldn't call it that. More like reapportioning Frenchmen's riches."

Sinjin shook his head sadly. "I'm truly sorry you have to resort to such a practice. If I had any money, I'd give it to you, but you know the St. John fortune went the way of powdered wigs."

"Your father may be poor, but at least he's highly respected." Harry wished to God he could say the same about his departed father.

"Thank you," Sinjin answered. "I am happy to say that I plan to follow in my father's footsteps. Whilst he serves in the House of Lords, I am going to stand for the House of Commons—with my father's influential Whig friends' financial help."

Harry smiled. "I can think of no one better suited to serve in Parliament."

Sinjin looked from him to their host. "I shall miss you two awfully."

They all nodded. Silence filled the chamber like a menacing creature.