Eton College, 1797
The frigid air of a November evening permeated the bedchamber like an invisible, smothering fog, making every hair on Benedict Sterling’s body stand on end. As he lay shivering beneath a pile of thin, scratchy blankets, he imagined himself surrounded by the comforts of home. A warm fire and his heavy, damask counterpane, his hound Caesar laid across his feet. His father had boxed his ears on more than one occasion for sneaking the dog into his bed, but it was never enough to deter him. Viscount Sterling was abominable as father’s went. Still, Benedict would gladly have endured the man’s dismissal and harsh punishments in exchange for rooms warmed by blazing fires, and the decadent warmth of a cup of chocolate heating his belly.
Curling his knees into his chest, he willed sleep to claim him. Once exhaustion pushed him into unconsciousness, the cold would no longer matter.
Mrs. Culpepper—the dame over the boardinghouse he inhabited with twelve other boys—was as stingy with coal and tapers as she was with smiles or kindness. The lives of some lads could be made easier by the generous allowances. Those who came from families with deep pockets had the blunt to afford such niceties that could lessen the discomforts of life at Eton. However, while Benedict came from a family with an illustrious name and several fruitful estates, his father’s parsimony rivaled Dame Culpepper’s. The viscount believed that the rigors of school life were part of what made a boy into a man. In his day, he had endured the same sparse accommodations, grueling schedule, and harsh physical punishments—and he expected his sons to do the same without complaint.
Benedict suffered in silence, determined that his father be given no further ammunition toward his scorn. Viscount Sterling was a hard, uncompromising man, but proved doubly so regarding his youngest son. For years, Benedict had thought it simply the matter of being neither the heir nor the spare, but time had proven otherwise. It was as if Benedict’s father could sense something was wrong with him—something that should be crushed and obliterated to make him into the sort of man a father could be proud of.
That his mother doted on him to compensate for cruel treatment only made matters worse. The viscount hated what he saw as ‘coddling,’ and did everything he could to come between Benedict and the one person in the world who loved him without condition or requirement. The viscount had insisted that once his sons were placed in the care of a tutor rather than a governess, the time for cosseting was over. Only a man could make boys into men, and the early years of suckling at the viscountess’s teat were behind them.
The viscountess had done her duty by providing sons, and she was now meant to step aside and allow the father to mold them into gentlemen. But Agatha Sterling had been the first friend Benedict had ever known, the only one to accept him without condition. For that, she had Benedict’s devotion, and there was nothing his father could do to break it.
Slipping one hand beneath his lumpy pillow, Benedict fingered the edges of the letters he kept there. On the pages were the viscountess’ words, written with love and care. He only needed to survive the next six weeks before the term ended and he could travel home for Christmas. While there, he might at least pretend he would never have to return to this hellish place ever again.
He conjured his mother’s image—soft and pretty with dark blonde hair and velvety brown eyes that shined with the light of a jubilant soul. Benedict had never been brave enough to ask his mother if the viscount made her happy, but then, he was certain he already knew the answer. Her light was dimmed whenever the viscount was near, as if the candle of her soul had been blown out. She became silent and docile, eyes lowered, voice soft.
She’d been a coveted debutante her first Season, pursued by all manner of titled, upstanding men. Marriage to his father had been practical, a good match by the conventions of society. She was the consummate viscountess, upholding the image of a titled family as she had been bred to. But she was most happy when painting, dressed in an old gown and smock, fingers dyed from her watercolors, hair in a haphazard knot. Benedict loved to sit and watch her paint, wanting to absorb the moments of peace and serenity she was allowed when immersed in her art. She would often pause in the midst of her work and smile at him, lighting up the entire room.
“Come and help me?” she would ask, inclining her head to beckon him over.
Her tinkling laughter always made him smile as she used her smock to wipe the paint splatter from his chin.
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