A Hellion In Her Bed
Thirteen-year-old Lord Jarret Sharpe didn’t want to spend the night in hell. He glanced out the coach window at the moon and shuddered. It must be nearly eight—they would arrive at Eton just when the boys were being locked into the Long Chamber. And hell would begin.
Tugging at his black cravat, he looked over at his grandmother. What could he say to make her change her mind? Six months ago, she’d carried them off to live with her in London—away from Halstead Hall, the best place in the whole world. She wouldn’t take him to the brewery with her anymore. And she made him go to horrible school. All because of how Mother and Father had died.
A chill froze his soul and he felt like something had died in him, too. He couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep . . . he couldn’t even cry.
What kind of monster was he? Even his older brother Oliver had cried at the funeral. Jarret wanted to cry, but the tears wouldn’t come. Not even late at night, during his nightmares about Father in the coffin.
He’d read the newspaper accounts of how the bullet had “shattered his lordship’s face,” and he couldn’t forget that image. Bad enough that he was still haunted by seeing Mother, stiff and pale, lying in the casket with her snowy gown covering her bullet wound. Every time he thought of what Father’s closed casket must mean, he could hardly breathe.
“Tell Oliver I expect him to write me every week, do you hear?” Gran said.
“Yes, ma’am.” A sharp pain seized his chest. He’d always secretly believed he was Gran’s favorite. But not anymore.
“And you, too, of course,” she added, her voice softening.
“I don’t want to go to school!” he burst out. When her eyebrows lifted, he added hastily, “I want to stay home. I want to go to the brewery every day with you.”
“Jarret, my boy—”
“No, listen!” He mangled the mourning gloves in his lap as his words came out in a rush. “Grandfather said I’ll inherit the brewery, and I already know everything about it. I know how the mash is made and how long to roast the barley. And I’m good at math—you said so yourself. I could learn to manage the books.”
“I’m sorry, lad, but that’s just not wise. It was wrong of me and your grandfather to encourage your interest in the brewery. Your mother didn’t want that for you, and she was right. She married a marquess precisely because she wanted greater things for her children than mucking around some brewery.”
“You muck around it,” he protested.
“Because I have to. Because it’s the primary support for you children until your parents’ estate is settled.”
“But I could help!” He yearned to be of some use to his family. Plumtree Brewery was far better than learning about
who crossed the Nile and how to conjugate Latin; what good were those to him?
“You can help more by taking up a respectable profession, the kind you can only get at Eton. You were born to be someone far greater—a barrister or a bishop. I could even bear your being in the army or the navy, if that’s what you wanted.”
“I don’t want to be a soldier,” he said, appalled. The very thought of holding a pistol made his stomach roil. Mother had accidentally shot Father with a pistol. Then she had shot herself.
That part was confusing. Gran had told the newspaper that when Mother had seen Father dead by her hand, she got so sad that she shot herself. It didn’t make sense to him, but Gran had ordered them not to speak of it again, so he didn’t. Not even to ask questions.
It hurt something awful to think of Mother shooting herself. How could she have left the five of them alone? If she had lived, she might have let him have tutors at home, and he could have kept going to the brewery with Gran.
His throat tightened. It wasn’t fair!
“Not a soldier, then,” Gran said kindly. “Perhaps a barrister. With your sharp mind, you could be a fine barrister.”
“I don’t want to be a barrister! I want to run the brewery with you!”
Nobody at the brewery ever said nasty things to him. The brewers treated him like a man. They would never call Mother “the Halstead Hall Murderess.” They wouldn’t tell vile lies about Oliver.
When he realized Gran was watching him, he smoothed the frown from his face.
“Does this have to do with the fights you got into at
school?” Gran asked with worry in her voice. “Your headmaster said he’s had to punish you nearly every week for fighting. Why is that?”
“I don’t know,” he mumbled.
A look of extreme discomfort crossed her face. “If the other boys are saying nasty things about your parents, I can speak to the headmaster—”
“No, damn it!” he cried, panicked that she could read him so well. She mustn’t speak to the headmaster—that would only make everything worse!
“Do not curse at me. Come now, you can tell Gran. Is that why you don’t want to go back to school?”
He stuck out his lower lip. “I just don’t like studying, is all.”
Her sharp gaze searched his face. “So you’re lazy?”
He said nothing. Better to be branded a laggard than a tattletale.
She gave a heavy sigh. “Well, not liking to study is no reason to come home. Boys never like to study. But it is good for them. If you apply yourself and work hard, you will do well in life. Don’t you want to do well?”
“Yes, ma’am,” he muttered.
“Then I am sure you will.” She glanced out the coach window. “Ah, here we are.”
Jarret’s throat closed up. He wanted to beg her not to make him go, but once Gran made up her mind, no one could change it. And she didn’t want him at the brewery. No one wanted him anywhere, anymore.
They left the coach and walked to the headmaster’s office. She signed him in while a servant brought his trunk upstairs to the Long Chamber.
“Promise me you won’t get into any more fights,” Gran said.
“I promise,” he said dully. What did it matter if it was a lie? What did anything matter?
“That’s a good lad. Oliver arrives tomorrow. You’ll feel better once he is here.”
He bit back a hot retort. Oliver tried to look out for him, but he couldn’t be everywhere at once. Besides, at sixteen, Oliver spent all his time brooding and drinking with his older friends. Tonight he wouldn’t be here at all.
Another shudder wracked Jarret.
“Now give Gran a kiss and tell me good-bye,” she said softly.
Dutifully, he did as she bade before trudging up the stairs. He’d scarcely entered the Long Chamber and heard the doors being locked behind him when that beast, John Platt, sauntered up to paw through his bags.
“What have you brought for us this time, Babyface?”
Jarret hated the nickname that Platt and his friends had given him because of his hairless chin and short stature. But at seventeen, Platt was a foot taller than him and a whole lot meaner.
Platt found the paper-wrapped apple cake Gran had given him and took a big bite out of the middle while Jarret watched, gritting his teeth.
“What, aren’t you going to take a swing at me?” Platt asked as he waved the cake in front of Jarret’s face.
What was the point? Platt and his friends would beat him up, and he’d just get in trouble again.
Every time he cared about something, it got taken from him. Showing that he cared only made it worse.
“I hate apple cake,” Jarret lied. “Our cook puts dog piss in it.”
He had the satisfaction of watching Platt glance skeptically at the cake before tossing it to one of his stupid friends. He hoped they choked on it.
Platt turned to searching his bag again. “What have we here?” he said as he found the gilded box of playing cards Jarret had received from his father as a birthday present.
Jarret’s blood stilled. He thought he’d hidden it so well. He’d brought the cards to school on impulse, wanting something to remind him of his parents.
This time it was harder to stay calm. “I don’t know what you plan to do with those,” he said, attempting to sound bored. “You can’t play worth a damn.”
“Why, you little weasel!” Grabbing Jarret by his cravat, Platt jerked him up so hard it cut off his air.
Jarret was clawing at Platt’s fingers, fighting for breath, when Giles Masters, a viscount’s son and the brother of Oliver’s best friend, wrenched Platt’s hand from his cravat.
“Leave the lad be,” Masters warned as Jarret stood there gasping. Masters was eighteen, very tall, and had a wicked left punch.
“Or what?” Platt drawled. “He’ll shoot me? Like his brother shot their father to gain his inheritance?”
“That’s a damned lie!” Jarret cried, balling up his fists.
Masters put a hand on his shoulder to stay him. “Stop provoking him, Platt. And give him back his cards or I’ll make a hash of your face.”
“You won’t risk getting into trouble this close to matriculation,” Platt said uneasily. Then he glanced at Jarret. “But I tell you what. If Babyface wants his cards back, he can play piquet for them. Got any money to wager with, Babyface?”
“His brother doesn’t want him gambling,” Masters answered.
“Aw, isn’t that sweet,” Platt said with a smirk. “Babyface does whatever his big brother tells him.”
“For God’s sake, Platt—” Masters began.
“I’ve got money,” Jarret cut in. He’d learned to play cards at Father’s knee and he was pretty good at it. He thrust out his chest. “I’ll play you.”
With a raise of his eyebrows, Platt sat down on the floor and sorted out the cards to make the thirty-two-card piquet deck.
“Are you sure about this?” Masters asked as Jarret sat down across from his archenemy.
“Trust me,” Jarret replied.
An hour later, he’d won his deck back. Two hours later, he’d won fifteen shillings off Platt. By morning he’d won five pounds, much to the dismay of Platt’s thickheaded friends.
After that, no one called him Babyface again.