“He's too young for all that!” Nurse Hopkins exclaimed.

“Nonsense,” Hastings replied condescendingly. “Clearly, I don't expect him to master any of this anytime soon, but it is never too early to begin a duke's education.”

“He's not a duke,” Nurse muttered.

“He will be.” Hastings turned his back on her and crouched beside his son, who was building an asymmetrical castle with a set of blocks on the floor. The duke hadn't been down to Clyvedon in several months, and was pleased with Simon's growth. He was a sturdy, healthy young boy, with glossy brown hair and clear blue eyes.

“What are you building there, son?”

Simon smiled and pointed.

Hastings looked up at Nurse Hopkins. “Doesn't he speak?”

She shook her head. “Not yet, your grace.”

The duke frowned. “He's two. Shouldn't he be speaking?”

“Some children take longer than others, your grace. He's clearly a bright young boy.”

“Of course he's bright. He's a Basset.”

Nurse nodded. She always nodded when the duke talked about the superiority of the Basset blood. “Maybe,” she suggested, “he just doesn't have anything he wants to say.”

The duke didn't look convinced, but he handed Simon a toy soldier, patted him on the head, and left the house to go exercise the new mare he'd purchased from Lord Worth.

Two years later, however, he wasn't so sanguine.

“Why isn't he talking?” he boomed.

“I don't know,” Nurse answered, wringing her hands.

“What have you done to him?”

“I haven't done anything!”

“If you'd been doing your job correctly, he”—the duke jabbed an angry finger in Simon's direction—“would be speaking.”

Simon, who was practicing his letters at his miniature desk, watched the exchange with interest.

“He's four years old, God damn it,” the duke roared. “He should be able to speak.”

“He can write,” Nurse said quickly. “Five children I've raised, and not a one of them took to letters the way Master Simon has.”

“A fat lot of good writing is going to do him if he can't talk.” Hastings turned to Simon, rage burning in his eyes. “Talk to me, damn you!”

Simon shrank back, his lower lip quivering.

“Your grace!” Nurse exclaimed. “You're scaring the child.”

Hastings whipped around to face her. “Maybe he needs scaring. Maybe what he needs is a good dose of discipline. A good paddling might help him find his voice.”

The duke grabbed the silver-backed brush Nurse used on Simon's hair and advanced on his son. “I'll make you talk, you stupid little—”

“No!”

Nurse gasped. The duke dropped the brush. It was the first time they'd ever heard Simon's voice.

“What did you say?” the duke whispered, tears forming in his eyes.

Simon's fists balled at his sides, and his little chin jutted out as he said, “Don't you h-h-h-h-h-h-h—”

The duke's face turned deathly pale. “What is he saying?”

Simon attempted the sentence again. “D-d-d-d-d-d-d—”

“My God,” the duke breathed, horrified. “He's a moron.”

“He's not a moron!” Nurse cried out, throwing her arms around the boy.

“D-d-d-d-d-d-d-don't you h-h-h-h-h-h-hit”—Simon took a deep breath—“me.”

Hastings sank onto the window seat, his head dropping into his hands. “What have I done to deserve this? What could I have possibly done…”

“You should be giving the boy praise!” Nurse Hopkins admonished. “Four years you've been waiting for him to speak, and—”

“And he's an idiot!” Hastings roared. “A goddamned, bloody little idiot!”

Simon began to cry.

“Hastings is going to go to a half-wit,” the duke moaned. “All those years of praying for an heir, and now it's all for ruin. I should have let the title go to my cousin.” He turned back to his son, who was sniffling and wiping his eyes, trying to appear strong for his father. “I can't even look at him,” he gasped. “I can't even bear to look at him.”

And with that, the duke stalked out of the room.

Nurse Hopkins hugged the boy close. “You're not an idiot,” she whispered fiercely. “You're the smartest little boy I know. And if anyone can learn to talk properly, I know it's you.”

Simon turned into her warm embrace and sobbed.

“We'll show him,” Nurse vowed. “He'll eat his words if it's the last thing I do.”

Nurse Hopkins proved true to her word. While the Duke of Hastings removed himself to London and tried to pretend he had no son, she spent every waking minute with Simon, sounding out words and syllables, praising him lavishly when he got something right, and giving him encouraging words when he didn't.

The progress was slow, but Simon's speech did improve. By the time he was six, “d-d-d-d-d-d-d-don't” had turned into “d-d-don't” and by the time he was eight, he was managing entire sentences without faltering. He still ran into trouble when he was upset, and Nurse had to remind him often that he needed to remain calm and collected if he wanted to get the words out in one piece.

But Simon was determined, and Simon was smart, and perhaps most importantly, he was damned stubborn. He learned to take breaths before each sentence, and to think about his words before he attempted to say them. He studied the feel of his mouth when he spoke correctly, and tried to analyze what went wrong when he didn't.



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