"Well, I'll be heading decidedly west on the morrow."
His batman looked up sharply as he sank down on his cot. "Did you get orders to move us west?"
"In a manner." He glanced at the letter again. "I have received orders. You and the men will stay put."
Morris followed his gaze to the rough-hewn desk with a frown. "I don't follow your meaning."
"I've been summoned home, Morris."
"Home as in England?"
Constantine took a moment to react, too preoccupied with digesting this turn in his life. Eventually he nodded while gazing at the letter bearing the distantly familiar ducal seal as though it were a living, breathing thing that might rise up to snap its teeth at him. "The Duke of Birchwood has spoken."
The grand nobleman was still etched solidly in Constantine's memory with his bushy gray muttonchops and wintry blue stare that could cut straight through you. The duke was perhaps the most prominent of his childhood memories, rising above all like a stone edifice. He remembered his parents only vaguely, as snatches of water-colored images flashing through his mind. They'd sickened from cholera and perished when he was but seven years.
After the loss of his mother and father, he'd desperately wanted the love and approval of his father's distant kinsman upon whose doorstep he was deposited.
His father had been a simple solicitor and his mother of even more humble origins—a shopgirl from the East End. Rough beginnings aside, Constantine still remembered the gentle way she would stroke his head and brush back his hair as she sang him to sleep.
He'd been a broken little boy when he'd arrived at the duke's Mayfair mansion. He'd thought it a palace, so grand had it appeared to his young eyes with its countless liveried servants and gleaming fixtures and glorious art and the vaulted ceilings that seemed to touch the sky.
For ten years, the duke scarcely spoke to Constantine, but the man had done well by him. Birchwood had brought him up when his parents died. No one had forced him to do so. He was a duke of the realm and he had taken Constantine in. He'd given him a roof over his head, a chamber of his own, food on his plate and allowed him to be tutored alongside his three sons.
Constantine owed him.
When one considered how perfectly reasonable it would have been to have turned Constantine over to an orphanage or workhouse. Their family connection was, after all, tenuous at best. He'd even purchased Con his commission at the age of seventeen, and no paltry commission either. He'd come into the army as an officer and had reached the rank of colonel by the age of thirty. He liked to think he had moved through the ranks due to his own merit, but his connection to the Duke of Birchwood was mentioned upon his every promotion.
Now, a year later, there had been talk of another promotion. He supposed that was moot now.
"Why have you been summoned home?"
"It seems the duke's son has met with an unfortunate end. He is gone," he said in an even voice that reflected none of his inner turmoil.
"Dead?" Morris asked as though requiring clarification.
He felt a flash of remorse over Winston's passing. As the eldest of his cousins and the one closest in age to Constantine, Winston had set the tone of tolerance toward Constantine, and his younger two cousins followed his lead. Still, he could never claim to have been particularly close to any of the duke's sons. Cousins four times removed, there had always been a gulf between them—an awareness that he was naught but a foundling from the wrong side of the family tree. They'd never been cruel to him...merely detached. Coolly disinterested. Rather, they had treated him as a stray cat, largely ignoring him but occasionally giving him a scratch behind the ears.
Now with this letter informing him that Winston was dead—appallingly fast on the heels of Constantine's younger two cousins who had also expired—he felt only a numb sense of shock and dismay at what this signified for him.