Beyond Scandal and Desire(115)

By: Lorraine Heath

Her smile withered. She paled as though she’d seen a ghost. “The bastard.”

Her pronouncement grated, as though he were no more than the sum of that word. Perhaps once he had been, perhaps once it had defined him. But when he looked at himself through Aslyn’s eyes, he realized he was so much more. “I’m the man who loves Lady Aslyn Hastings with all his heart. I’m the man who will wed her if she will have him.”

He heard the gasp, looked to the side and saw Aslyn standing at the foot of the stairs, her hand covering her mouth. Reaching into his jacket pocket, he pulled out a packet of papers and took a step toward her. “The deeds, the markers, they’re yours, no strings attached. Return them to Kipwick, burn them. I don’t care. I won’t ruin him. I don’t need an acknowledgment. All I need is you.”

Slowly, suspiciously, as though she had years to do so, she reached out and took the packet from him.

“I want you to know—”

“You’re the bastard,” the duchess interrupted as though he were not in the process of laying his heart bare.

With a deep sigh, he turned back to her. “Yes, madam. I’m a bastard.”

She shook her head. “Not a bastard. The bastard.”

As though there were only one in the entirety of Britain. “If you wish.”

“My God. You’re his son.”

With a single affirmation he could bring Hedley to his knees, could destroy his relationship with his duchess. A month ago he’d have done it without hesitation. A month ago he hadn’t been the man he was at that moment, one who understood a man put the welfare and well-being of the woman he loved above all else. He would not shove this little bird from the nest. The circumstances surrounding his birth no longer mattered. All that mattered was Aslyn. “No, madam, you’re mistaken.”

Tears welling in her eyes, she shook her head. “I have gazed into those blue eyes for thirty-three years.” Reaching up, she touched his chin with trembling fingers. “I have kissed that dimple a thousand times. More.”

“I assure you, madam, I am not his son.”

“Bella!” the duke shouted as he ran into the large foyer, panic clearly written on his face, horror reflected in blue eyes that so mirrored Mick’s in shade.

With a hand covering her mouth, she turned to him. “The bastard is your son.”

“No, my love.”

“For God’s sake, don’t lie to her,” Kipwick stated emphatically as he staggered to a stop behind the duke. “Not when the proof stands right there. She’s not daft, and she has a right to know you were unfaithful, that you sired a by-blow.”

Shaking his head, slowly the duke crept toward her, as though she were a skittish filly that would dash off, his outstretched hand imploring. “Bella—”

“It is him, isn’t it? The one you took away.”

“Darling.” The answer was there in his eyes, in his shaking hand.

She released a heart-wrenching sob. “My God, Hedley, I was wrong. All those years ago I gave birth to your son.”

Chapter 22

Mick was so stunned by the duchess’s revelation he very nearly missed the fact that she was sinking to the floor in a faint. Dropping his hat, he swept her up into his arms. She was as light as a willow branch.

“Give her to me,” the duke ordered.

Only Mick couldn’t seem to make himself obey the command, couldn’t force his arms to relinquish the precious bundle they carried. Only now did he realize the duke had never once denied he was his son. He’d only ever denied he was his bastard.

Christ! The woman he held—the duke’s wife—was his mother? Why had they taken him, a legitimate son, to Ettie Trewlove? Had he indeed been like the fledgling bird, too sickly—what the deuce did it matter now?

“I have her,” he said somberly. “She’s safe with me. Where shall I take her?”

“This way,” Aslyn said, her hand coming to rest lightly on his arm. “We’ll take her to her bedchamber.” She guided him toward the stairs.

“Worsted, send for Dr. Graves,” Hedley shouted.

Mick could only assume Worsted was some damned servant. He couldn’t seem to focus on his surroundings, on what was going on around him. He had the fleeting thought he might be on the verge of swooning himself, but there was no way in hell he was going to do anything that caused him to drop the woman he carried.