They were running for their lives.
At fourteen, Tristan Easton was well aware of that fact as he scampered behind his twin brother along the creaking docks. They wouldn’t be together much longer. It was far too dangerous. They were matching bookends with pale blue eyes—“Ghost Eyes” the gypsies called them—that made them easily identifiable as the lords belonging to Pembrook. And when they were within each other’s shadow, they became an easy target for the one who wished them harm.
Through the midnight haze, barely illuminated by the occasional lantern or torch, Sebastian led the way because he was the older by twenty-two minutes. As such he was the eighth Duke of Keswick, now that their father was dead—murdered, no doubt, by their vile uncle who yearned to gain the titles and properties. But three lads stood in his way. Tristan was of a mind to see that it remained that way.
Even though his heart was galloping madly at the sight of the monstrous ship looming ahead of them, rocking on the water, fog swirling ominously around it. Bitter bile rose in his throat as the stench of brine mingled with decaying fish assaulted his nostrils.
Sebastian staggered to a stop, swung around—his black hair flopping into his eyes—and grabbed Tristan’s shoulders. “You understand that I have no choice. We must do this.”
He’d said the same words to their younger brother, Rafe, when he delivered him to a workhouse. But Rafe hadn’t understood. Not really. Four years their junior, he’d reacted the way he usually did when the twins formed plans that didn’t include him: he whined, blubbered, and begged not to be left behind. What a sniveling little pup!
Tristan was above putting on a similar disgusting performance, even though he could barely breathe with the dread of what awaited him churning in his gut, even though he had to clamp his teeth together so they didn’t betray that he was shaking with fear. Tiny chilled tremors that somehow seemed far worse than outright trembling. But he wouldn’t add to Sebastian’s burdens. He’d be a man about this, prove his worth.
He wished Sebastian hadn’t stopped, hadn’t given him time to think about what was happening. Their uncle, Lord David Easton, had locked them in the cold dark tower at Pembrook as soon as all the mourners had left following their father’s funeral. Their mother was long dead. They were in their uncle’s care now, and it seemed he intended to rid himself of them.
They’d still be shivering in that prison if Mary, their neighbor’s daughter, hadn’t helped them to escape. Tristan had wanted to use the opportunity to slay their uncle then and there, be done with the troublesome bastard, but Sebastian favored waiting until they were men, better able to command the situation. Unfortunately that plan involved going into hiding. Where better than far from England’s shores?
Tristan gave a brisk nod in response to his brother’s earlier words. He clenched his hands into balled fists to keep them from reaching out and clutching Sebastian’s shirt in a last vain attempt to avoid the impending separation.
Sebastian’s fingers tightened, digging painfully into Tristan’s shoulders. “Remember, ten years from now, on the night we escaped, we meet at the old abbey ruins. We’ll get our revenge, I swear to you upon mother’s and father’s graves.”
He nodded once again.
“All right then.”
Sebastian continued along the dock until they came to the hulking ship. It groaned in the darkness of the night. A large man stood near the plank that led onto the ship. His greatcoat barely stirred in the breeze coming off the water. A scar along the left side of his face brought the corner of his mouth up into a mockery of a smile. His eyes were as black as sin.
A shiver skittered down Tristan’s spine. He wanted to turn on his heel and head to the stable where they’d tethered their horses. He wanted to climb onto Molly and gallop away, never stopping. Instead he forced himself to stand beside his brother as he faced the captain to whom Sebastian had spoken in a tavern earlier.
“Have you the coins?” Sebastian asked.
“Aye.” The captain tossed a leather pouch into the air, caught it. The coins jingled. “You sure you be wanting this, lad? To be me cabin boy?”
“Hard life on a ship. Neither of you look like boys accustomed to a hard life.”
Tristan fought to find his voice—
“He’s not afraid,” Sebastian announced confidently.
Tristan was grateful for his brother’s words, glad he was successfully hiding that he was truly terrified.
“All right then.” The captain tossed the pouch to Sebastian, who caught it with both hands, as though it weighed far more than it did, as though it carried the burden of his conscience. “Let’s get aboard.”
The captain turned and began to walk up the gangway. Tristan took a step—
Sebastian grabbed him, hugged him tightly. “Be strong.”
Tristan’s eyes burned. Dammit. He wasn’t going to cry. He wasn’t going to be a baby like Rafe. With a nod he slapped Sebastian on the back, broke free, and ran up the ship’s corridor. He leaped onto the deck.
When he looked back all he saw was Sebastian’s retreating shadow disappearing into the darkness. Tristan wanted to go with him. He didn’t want to be here. He didn’t want this.
The captain’s huge paw of a hand landed on his shoulder with enough weight to jar him.
“I’m called Marlow. Have you a name, lad?”
“Lo—” He stopped. He couldn’t tell anyone that he was Lord Tristan Easton, second in line for the dukedom of Keswick. Until they reclaimed their birthright he was only a commoner. He cleared his throat. “Tristan.”
“Well, Lo Tristan, who you be running from?”
Tristan pressed his lips tightly together. The captain had caught his mistake, was mocking him. He would never be so careless again. If he was to be nothing else, he would become a master keeper of secrets.
“So be it,” the captain said. “I’ll call you Jack.”
Tristan jerked his gaze up to the towering man. “Why?”
“When you’re seeking to hide, lad, you hide everything.”
Tristan looked back toward the looming black void into which his brother had vanished. He could do that. He could deeply bury everything about himself. He could become someone else. He would become someone else.
He only hoped that when the time was right, he could find himself once again.