And finally, at the age of eleven, he turned to Nurse Hopkins, paused to collect his thoughts, and said, “I think it is time we went to see my father.”

Nurse looked up sharply. The duke had not laid eyes on the boy in seven years. And he had not answered a single one of the letters Simon had sent him.

Simon had sent nearly a hundred.

“Are you certain?” she asked.

Simon nodded.

“Very well, then. I'll order the carriage. We'll leave for London on the morrow.”

The trip took a day and a half, and it was late afternoon by the time their carriage rolled up to Basset House. Simon gazed at the busy London streetscape with wonder as Nurse Hopkins led him up the steps. Neither had ever visited Basset House before, and so Nurse didn't know what to do when she reached the front door other than knock.

The door swung open within seconds, and they found themselves being looked down upon by a rather imposing butler.

“Deliveries,” he intoned, reaching to close the door, “are made in the rear.”

“Hold there!” Nurse said quickly, jamming her foot in the door. “We are not servants.”

The butler looked disdainfully at her garments.

“Well, I am, but he's not.” She grabbed Simon's arm and yanked him forward. “This is Earl Clyvedon, and you'd do well to treat him with respect.”

The butler's mouth actually dropped open, and he blinked several times before saying, “It is my understanding that Earl Clyvedon is dead.”

“What?” Nurse screeched.

“I most certainly am not!” Simon exclaimed, with all the righteous indignation of an eleven-year-old.

The butler examined Simon, recognized immediately that he had the look of the Bassets, and ushered them in.

“Why did you think I was d-dead?” Simon asked, cursing himself for misspeaking, but not surprised. He was always most likely to stutter when he was angry.

“It is not for me to say,” the butler replied.

“It most certainly is,” Nurse shot back. “You can't say something like that to a boy of his years and not explain it.”

The butler was silent for a moment, then finally said, “His grace has not mentioned you in years. The last I heard, he said he had no son. He looked quite pained as he said it, so no one pursued the conversation. We—the servants, that is—assumed you'd passed on.”

Simon felt his jaw clench, felt his throat working wildly.

“Wouldn't he have gone into mourning?” Nurse demanded. “Did you think about that? How could you have assumed the boy was dead if his father was not in mourning?”

The butler shrugged. “His grace frequently wears black. Mourning wouldn't have altered his costume.”

“This is an outrage,” Nurse Hopkins said. “I demand you summon his grace at once.”

Simon said nothing. He was trying too hard to get his emotions under control. He had to. There was no way he'd be able to talk with his father while his blood was racing so.

The butler nodded. “He is upstairs. I'll alert him immediately to your arrival.”

Nurse started pacing wildly, muttering under her breath and referring to his grace with every vile word in her surprisingly extensive vocabulary. Simon remained in the center of the room, his arms angry sticks at his sides as he took deep breaths.

You can do this, he shouted in his mind. You can do this.

Nurse turned to him, saw him trying to control his temper, and immediately gasped. “Yes, that's it,” she said quickly, dropping to her knees and taking his hands in hers. She knew better than anyone what would happen if Simon tried to face his father before he calmed down. “Take deep breaths. And make sure to think about your words before you speak. If you can control—”

“I see you're still mollycoddling the boy,” came an imperious voice from the doorway.

Nurse Hopkins straightened and turned slowly around. She tried to think of something respectful to say. She tried to think of anything that would smooth over this awful situation. But when she looked at the duke, she saw Simon in him, and her rage began anew. The duke might look just like his son, but he was certainly no father to him.

“You, sir,” she spat out, “are despicable.”

“And you, madam, are fired.”

Nurse lurched back.

“No one speaks to the Duke of Hastings that way,” he roared. “No one!”

“Not even the king?” Simon taunted.

Hastings whirled around, not even noticing that his son had spoken clearly. “You,” he said in a low voice.

Simon nodded curtly. He'd managed one sentence properly, but it had been a short one, and he didn't want to push his luck. Not when he was this upset. Normally, he could go days without a stutter, but now…

The way his father stared at him made him feel like an infant. An idiot infant.

And his tongue suddenly felt awkward and thick.

The duke smiled cruelly. “What do you have to say for yourself, boy? Eh? What do you have to say?”

“It's all right, Simon,” Nurse Hopkins whispered, throwing a furious glance at the duke. “Don't let him upset you. You can do it, sweetling.”

And somehow her encouraging tone made it all the worse. Simon had come here to prove himself to his father, and now his nurse was treating him like a baby.

“What's the matter?” the duke taunted. “Cat got your tongue?”

Simon's muscles clenched so hard he started to shake.

Father and son stared at each other for what felt like an eternity, until finally the duke swore and stalked toward the door. “You are my worst failure,” he hissed at his son. “I don't know what I did to deserve you, but God help me if I ever lay eyes on you again.”



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