The Lady Falls

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Chapter One

April, 1815

Sussex

            “James, are you drunk?”

            Slumped in a straight backed wooden chair, contemplating the whys and wherefores of life, death, and grief, James Witherspoon cast a brooding glare over the rim of his brandy sniffer at his righteously indignant mother.

            Are you drunk? What sort of a question was that? Of course he was drunk. He was by definition—a drunk.

            “Is it past noon?” he asked peevishly.

            “Barely.” Constance Witherspoon stalked across the room in a cloud of black mourning skirts. She snatched the crystal brandy decanter off the table and the sniffer from his hand.

“Then I am most definitely drunk,” he drawled, reaching into his breast pocket to retrieve the silver flask hidden inside. “Give me another hour and I’ll be bloody foxed.” He twirled the flask lid, tilting the nozzle to his lips.

She plucked the flask from his fingers, sloshing amber whiskey onto the red wool sleeve of his dress uniform. “On today of all days, how can you sit here and drink yourself into oblivion?” Constance stormed to the open window beside the oak bookshelf and emptied the contents of the flagon into the grass below.

“Funny,” James grumbled, lamenting the loss of such fine whiskey. “I thought today more so than other days I had a damn good reason to get soused.” Not to be deterred, he slid open the end table drawer and removed yet another spirit filled flask.

“Have you no respect for your father’s memory?” She turned wide teary eyes on him.

Anger twisted his gut. “The general was not my father,” James spat, liquor loosening his tongue. “My father died twenty-five years ago.”

The lines around Constance’s mouth deepened as her eyes turned cold, frosting her tears. “This is an old argument, James.”

He shrugged. “I’m not arguing, merely stating a fact.”

“I will not have this discussion again. Not today. Not ever.” Her gaze fell hard upon him. “The fact remains the general is—” she stopped short, blinking quickly, “—was… your uncle and your blood relative. Your true papa, God rest him, would be gravely disappointed to see you so disrespectful of his brother’s memory.”

Disappointed… If that hadn’t been the general’s favorite word in regard to James. A familiar flicker of guilt swelled in his breast. James took a long drag from his flask, quickly washing the emotions back down. He’d spent years learning to show no weakness—to feel as little as possible—and a bout of sniffling wouldn’t weaken his resolve today. Maintaining his usual show of nonchalance, he spun the lid back onto the second flask. “The general knew very well what I am.” A disappointment. “Somehow I doubt he expected a sudden reformation at his funeral.”

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