Duke of Honor (Dukes of Distinction Book 5)
Who doesn’t love a duke? How about five of them?
Welcome to bestselling author Alexa Aston’s new Regency romance series, the Dukes of Distinction! These five aristocrats all come with nicknames Polite Society has bestowed upon them. Renown. Charm. Disrepute. Arrogance. Honor.
A woman who falls in love with a man she’s never seen . . .
A duke harboring a secret he can never reveal . . .
Sebastian Cooper, Marquess of Marbury, chooses to leave England and fight in the Napoleonic Wars for a decade. He comes home to find his father has died and assumes his role as the new Duke of Hardwick.
When Lady Hadley Hampton’s parents die, she is made a ward to the Duke of Hardwick, a man estranged from his only son. She reads Sebastian’s letters aloud to her guardian and over the years falls in love with the dashing war hero.
When Sebastian arrives home, he is astounded that Hadley has been managing his father’s affairs and is angry this beautiful stranger knows so much about him when he didn’t even know she existed. Sebastian fights his growing attraction to Hadley, believing she deserves much more than the broken, scarred man he has become.
Find the answer in The Duke of Honor, Book 5 in the Dukes of Distinction.
Each book in Dukes of Distinction is a standalone story that can be enjoyed out of order and can be read for free in Kindle Unlimited.
Book #1: Duke of Renown
Book #2: Duke of Charm
Book #3: Duke of Disrepute
Book #4: Duke of Arrogance
Book #5: Duke of Honor
Release date: June 10, 2021
Publisher: Dragonblade Publishing
Print pages: 220
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
Duke of Honor (Dukes of Distinction Book 5)
Hardwell Hall, Dorset—June 1806
Sebastian Cooper, Marquess of Marbury, stood in front of the door to his mother’s rooms. After hesitating a moment, he pushed the door open and entered.
For the first time in eleven years.
The Duchess of Hardwick had died in these rooms. Sebastian had just turned ten and, as usual, his mother was with child. She had spent the decade after his birth being impregnated by her volatile, cruel husband. Each time, she had either miscarried or given birth to a stillborn child—then the process started all over again.
Sebastian recalled the last argument he had overhead between his parents. His father had berated his mother for her lack in providing him with more sons, calling her stupid and worthless. His mother, the gentlest of creatures, had actually snapped back at her much older, powerful husband. Sebastian couldn’t recall her exact words but what he did remember was the sound of the hard slap that quickly followed. As he ran into the room, he watched his mother’s head snap back. Seen his father’s palm print, a vivid red, imprinted on her pale cheek. Sebastian still felt the rage that rippled through him and remembered how he had run to the duke and attacked him, trying to protect his mother from further harm.
Hardwick had squashed his ten-year-old son like a bug. Slammed his fist into Sebastian’s nose, breaking it, then lifting him and smashing him against the wall. He could still hear his mother’s screams. Feel his arm crack. Taste the salt of tears and the tin of his blood that sprang forth as pain sizzled through him.
Hardwick immediately forbid his son to see his mother again after what he termed the incident. Those deadly words had rolled off the duke’s tongue with ease. Mama, who had run to Sebastian and cradled him in comfort, eased him to the ground. She ran to her husband and fell to her knees before him, begging he relent.
Dukes did not capitulate to sobbing wives, especially ones they loathed. Good as his word, Sebastian had been kept away from his mother the next five months. She died in childbirth and he had always blamed Hardwick for her death. Part of him believed she died of a broken heart, not being able to see her only child. At least the babe had died along with her. No other child would have to suffer under the duke’s heavy hand.
Sebastian had as little as possible to do with his father after her death. He had come to Mama’s rooms, where her lady’s maid had prepared her body, and kissed the cold, lifeless cheek. Then he had promised her he would be a good duke and a good father to his future children. The children he would have one day when he was duke and his father rotted in a grave, forgotten by everyone.
Especially his only son.
As the scene from his past faded, Sebastian walked through Mama’s sitting room, remembering happier times. He paused and closed his eyes and imagined her still being here. In this room she had read to him. Played with him. Taught him good manners and right from wrong. The Duchess of Hardwick had molded her son’s character and made sure he knew to practice kindness and humility. Mama had emphasized loyalty and patriotism and responsibility, telling him of the immense power he would one day possess as the Duke of Hardwick and how he must always use his position for good and take care of his people and others who were less fortunate.
He opened his eyes and continued into her large bedchamber, untouched since her death all those years ago. Opening the wardrobe where her gowns still hung, he buried his nose in the material, catching the faint scent of vanilla that still clung to the garment. A warmth rushed through him. Mama had been the reason he eagerly came home each school term. With her death, he found excuses to stay away from Hardwell Hall and often went home with friends during school holidays. On the rare occasions he came home, he avoided the duke like the plague.
Sighing, he steeled himself for the conversation he would now have with the man who had sired him. He would inform Hardwick of his plans to go away.
The duke would be livid. Sebastian was the heir apparent to a dukedom. The Marquess of Marbury. Men such as he didn’t join the military, much less fight in an endless war that saw no end in sight.
Closing the wardrobe, he went to his mother’s dressing table and opened a drawer. After searching a moment, he found the locket he had come for. Mama never took it off. He hadn’t recalled seeing it around her neck on the day she had been buried and hoped it would be in her rooms. He intended to carry it with him as he left England and entered the madness of Bonaparte’s war.
Slipping it into his pocket, he left the room and went downstairs. He found Radmore, the butler, who was new to the position but not the household.
“Where is His Grace?” he asked.
“In his study, my lord,” the butler replied, his expression bland as suited the position.
Sebastian walked down the corridor feeling like a man going to his execution. He took a calming breath, knowing anything he did always met with disapproval from the duke and he shouldn’t be concerned about the upcoming tirade. Still, with trepidation, he rapped soundly on the door.
He opened the door and stepped inside. The duke sat at his desk, which was littered in papers. As Sebastian approached, he took in his father’s appearance for the first time in many years. At sixty-one, Hardwick was definitely showing signs of his age. His face was lined, deep crevices dug around his mouth. More lines sprang from the corners of his eyes. His hair, once dark, had gone iron gray. His body, once fit, now ran to fat.
The duke’s graying brows rose. “What do you want?”
He almost laughed aloud. They hadn’t spoken in years. “A brief audience, Your Grace.”
Hardwick’s mouth twitched in annoyance but he commanded, “Sit.”
Sebastian took a seat in the chair in front of the desk.
“I have finished university,” he began, trying to tamp down the nerves he felt in his man’s presence.
“Have you?” Hardwick’s tone almost mocked the accomplishment.
Sebastian had graduated with the highest of honors. He had been a model student, not carousing and drunk most of the time as many peers’ sons were during the time away from their families. He had been thirsty for knowledge and enjoyed his studies. He had also made wonderful friends in Jon and the Eton Three, as he and Jon had dubbed Andrew, George, and Weston. The five men became inseparable during their days at Cambridge. Until now. He and Andrew had decided to embark on military careers, while the others would take their seats in the House of Lords. It was Sebastian’s entry into the army that he would now reveal to the stranger who sat before him.
“Your Grace, I believe—”
“You do not need to believe anything,” Hardwick interrupted impatiently. “You are a marquess and my heir. You will believe what I want you to. I have let you play your little games all these years, Marbury. You have ignored me like a petulant child. Well, today you are a man and by God, today you will—”
“As a man, I will form and cherish my own beliefs and make my own decisions,” Sebastian said firmly, courage blossoming within him. He determined to stand up to the duke as he had never done before. “I have come to inform you of one of them.”
“Oh,” Hardwick snarled. “And what might that be?”
“I feel a strong sense of duty and loyalty to my country.”
“You should. This system will see you near the top of it one day. When I am gone and you are the new duke.”
“I plan to enter the military.”
The color drained from the duke’s face. “You will not,” he said, grounding out each word. ”You are my heir. The heir to a dukedom. You won’t go and get yourself killed on a battlefield by some crazed French bastard. I forbid it.”
“It is not for you to say, Your Grace,” Sebastian said coolly. “I have already purchased my commission. I leave today. I am merely extending the courtesy of telling you farewell.” He stood, prepared to leave, not wanting to endure the barrage of curses to come.
“No!” Hardwick roared. “I won’t let you.”
“You didn’t let a small boy see his mother as she lay dying. For that, I will never forgive you.”
He frowned. “She was a disappointment to me. She was young and should have given me sons,” the duke declared.
“She was my mother. You berated her. You were cruel to her. You were a mature man of forty and she but an eighteen-year-old girl when you wed. You could have been kind to her. Showed her some compassion.”
The duke rose, his face darkening in anger. “Show her sympathy when she kept losing my babes? Wedding that woman was a waste. She only had the one viable child—you—and you are just like her. Soft and weak. You look just like her. It’s part of why I cannot stand the sight of you.”
He had known it all along. “Then I am doing you a favor by leaving, Your Grace. I do feel a duty toward you, being your own flesh and blood. I will write to you merely because Mama would have wished for me to do so.”
Hardwick slammed his fist onto the desk. “I won’t read any letters from an insolent, disobedient cur.”
Sebastian stiffened at the slur. “I will write them, nevertheless. And don’t worry. I have seen to hiring the appropriate people to manage my estates and holdings while I am away.”
A knowing light entered the duke’s eyes. “My brother put you up to this, didn’t he?”
“I did seek Uncle Sydney’s advice. He helped—”
“Oh, I am certain he did more than help. Sydney has wanted to become the Duke of Hardwick from the moment he emerged from the womb. He is ten years my junior and always thought he knew better than I did. Can’t you see, Marbury? Sydney wants you to be killed in action. That way, he would become my heir.”
Sebastian had never understood the animosity between the two brothers. He only knew his uncle had treated him with kindness over the years, a far cry from the duke’s behavior toward him.
“You actually believe your twisted lies.” He shook his head sadly. “I feel sorry for you, Hardwick.”
The duke glared at him. “You have no need to,” he said viciously. “My good friend, the Earl of Pendell, has just passed. He’s made me guardian to his thirteen-year-old. Hadley is expected today. I will mold Hadley into my image. The Devil Himself can take you, Marbury. Get out!”
Sebastian left, anger rolling off him in waves. The meeting went as he had expected. His father would never understand Sebastian’s burning need to fight for England and a righteous cause. His mother would have. She had embedded the deep loyalty to country and his fellow man within her son. He paused and pulled the locket from his pocket. He would carry it into battle as his talisman. She would always be with him.
Going straight to the stables, he mounted his horse, which would be the only thing he took with him. Soon, he would be wearing his officer’s uniform.
Without a backward glance at his childhood home, he tore down the lane leading to the main road, only pausing at the end because of an approaching carriage. The vehicle slowed and he assumed as it turned beside him that it contained the child his father had become guardian to. He tamped down pity for the boy and turned east. His new regiment—and life—awaited him.
Lady Hadley Hampton tried very hard to hold her tears at bay. She might be thirteen but she still wanted her mother.
Even though she would never see Mama again.
She tried to push aside the image that lingered in her memory even after a month. Mama lying so still. Not breathing. Drained of color. She had been sick before but had always gotten better eventually. This time, though, the pneumonia claimed her.
It also took her father. He was old, though, and he had never spent much time with Hadley. In truth, he was so gruff that she had been more than a little bit frightened of him. She feared she would also be afraid of the Duke of Hardwick. He was Father’s childhood friend so Hadley supposed he also would be old. Father had been married once before but when his wife had died, he had married her mama. Hadley was their only child. Part of her wished she had died with Mama. She didn’t know what her life would be like now, with no living relatives, shipped off to the care of a stranger who lived hundreds of miles from everything she knew.
“We are almost at Hardwell Hall, Lady Hadley,” Mr. Weld, her father’s solicitor, said. “Just think—your new guardian is a duke. You are a most fortunate young lady.”
She didn’t feel fortunate at all. She felt lost and alone and wanted to scream at the top of her lungs until she had no voice left.
Then Mama’s gentle voice came to her.
Hadley, you have an opportunity to forge a new life. Be strong. Be brave. Be a lady. Make something of yourself.
Mama always had such good advice. Could Hadley truly be brave and become happy in whatever this new life brought?
She had been bold as a small child, always ready to try new things, and had only grown tentative as she had gotten older. Perhaps this would be an opportunity to reinvent herself. She had grown shy over the last few years, losing herself in books since she didn’t have any friends. Her father had preferred his country seat to town and so they never went to London. It wasn’t appropriate for her to play with any of the servants. The neighboring baron had two boys close to her age but they never wanted her around. She had grown up using her imagination and entertaining herself.
It might be different here. She might be different.
Hadley sat up and blinked away her unshed tears. She glanced out the window and saw a man racing down a long lane on a magnificent horse of coal black. Their carriage slowed and turned just as he reached the juncture in the road and for a brief moment, she studied him.
He sat a horse extremely well. He had dark blond hair and seemed tall and broad in the saddle. God-like. As their carriage turned, he wheeled his horse and headed to the east. Then he was gone.
Hadley wondered if the man had come from Hardwell Hall. Who he might be. She knew nothing of the place she went to and had no idea if her new guardian was married. If he had children or grandchildren. Something in her stirred.
She wanted to know the man on that horse.
The coach rambled on another ten minutes and finally came to a stop. The door opened. Mr. Weld got out and Hadley followed. Her eyes swept over the large, imposing structure that dwarfed her former home. Grand didn’t begin to do it justice. It seemed more like a palace fit for a king.
“Greetings. I am Radmore, His Grace’s butler.”
She turned and saw the servant who had just spoken. “I am Lady Hadley Hampton,” she said bravely and with assurance. “This is Mr. Weld, my late father’s solicitor.”
“His Grace is expecting you, my lady. If you will follow me.”
The butler led them inside and up a staircase. They arrived at the library. Hadley tried to take in all the opulent surroundings—the magnificent oil paints, Aubusson carpets, and plush furniture. This was to be her new home. She looked to the walls, where bookcases were filled, thinking there must be thousands of books on them.
“Please remain here,” the butler instructed. “His Grace will be with you shortly.”
Hadley began wandering around, skimming the titles on the shelves. She saw books in Greek and Latin. The works of Chaucer and Shakespeare. Poets such as Byron, Shelley, and Wordsworth.
“I could live in here forever,” she said under her breath, awed by the room and all the volumes she looked forward to reading.
“Come stand over here, my lady,” Mr. Weld said. “Remember how we spoke of greeting His Grace?”
“I remember. I have an excellent memory.”
Mr. Weld blinked and she realized her remark might sound too aggressive. Before she could apologize, however, the duke arrived.
Her eyes followed him as he crossed the room and their gazes met. This was a man who would miss nothing.
She dropped into a low curtsy, as Mr. Weld introduced her.
“I am pleased to meet you, Your Grace,” she said, keeping her voice low and modulated, wanting to make Mama proud of her as she watched Hadley from heaven.
The duke harrumphed. “Finally, someone is pleased.”
Whether he realized it or not, the duke’s remark proved revealing. Hadley filed it away, knowing she wanted to learn everything about her new guardian.
Mr. Weld cleared his throat. “I have met with your solicitor, Your Grace, regarding everything involving Lady Hadley’s property and dowry.”
“I am sure it is all in order,” the old man said gruffly. “That will be all.”
Seeing the duke dismissed him, Mr. Weld thanked him and then said to her, “My lady, it has been a pleasure handling your affairs and those of Lord Pendell’s. I wish you well in your new home and circumstances.”
“Thank you, Mr. Weld,” she said graciously.
Then the solicitor was gone, leaving just the two of them. Hadley took the role of a hostess, wanting to put her new guardian at ease, and said, “Perhaps we could sit and learn a little about each other, Your Grace.”
The duke snorted. “You are a forward one. And a girl. I was expecting a boy.”
She thought he meant to bully her and in truth, her legs were shaking. In order to earn his respect, though, she instinctively knew she must show no weakness.
“Hadley was my mother’s maiden name,” she said smoothly. “You are not the first to make that mistake.”
He glared at her. “Dukes don’t make mistakes.”
“Forgive me, Your Grace. I meant to say assumption. Most everyone who hears my name assumes I am male.”
“Are you one of those silly girls, emptyheaded and foolish?” he asked, studying her carefully.
“Not at all, Your Grace. My governess said I am the best pupil she has ever had the privilege of teaching. I love to read. I also enjoy riding and gardening. Just don’t ask me to sew. It neither interests me nor do I excel at it. I do enjoy playing the pianoforte, however. Might you have one? I would like to play for you.”
“Later,” he said grumpily but continued to eye her with interest. “Do you play chess?’
“No, but I certainly would like to learn how to do so. Will you teach me?” she asked eagerly.
“I can. You might learn the rules but you will never beat me,” he said boastfully.
“Not at first, Your Grace, for I will be a novice. The day will come when I do offer you a challenge, however.”
He choked at what she thought he would deem her insolence but Hadley knew she was merely standing up for herself and that he would respect her for doing so.
“Impossible!” he proclaimed.
“I am a quick study. Shall we place a wager? Say I will win a game from you three months from now.”
His eyes gleamed. “Then come have a seat now, Lady Hadley. I always did want to teach a young person how to play chess.”
He led her to a small table where the pieces were already set up for play and indicated the chair she should take.
Hadley did so and asked, “Have you no children you might have taught the game to?”
A sour look crossed his face. “I have one son. Marbury.” His mouth turned down. “He just left for the army. The fool will get himself killed.”
So it was the son she had seen, one the duke obviously disapproved of for some reason.
“You are never to speak of him again,” ordered the duke. “He is dead to me.”
Hadley heard the strong emotion laced in the words and knew things must be very strained between the two for father to disavow his only son, who was obviously his heir. She would learn what she could of this Marbury from the servants. She had always gotten along well with those in her home and expected the same at Hardwell Hall.
As the duke went over each of the playing pieces with her, Hadley listened carefully. She determined to beat this old man at chess—and somehow reunite the duke with his son.
Nine years later . . .
Hadley placed the baby in Mrs. Soames’ arms and watched as the mother cooed to the infant.
“I will be leaving now,” she told the new mother.
“Already?” Worry immediately filled the woman’s face.
“I will be back tomorrow to check on you and your son,” she promised. “In the meantime, try to get some rest after you nurse him. Your neighbors will be a great help to you.”
“I couldn’t have done this without you, my lady. You are an angel,” Mrs. Soames praised.
“I will send Mr. Soames in now. I am sure he is eager to meet his boy.”
She went to the door of the lone bedchamber and opened it, gesturing to the new father. He rushed over from the group of men and women gathered around the fire.
“Your wife and son are ready to see you now, Mr. Soames. I plan to return tomorrow to make sure everything is fine with the both of them.”
The farmer’s face lit up. “A boy? We have a son? Thank you ever so much, my lady,” the new father said, grinning from ear to ear.
“I look forward to hearing what you will name your child.”
Hadley watched their tenant step inside and hurry to his wife’s bed. For a moment she drank in a bit of their happiness as the new family of three came together. Then she closed the door and addressed the group.
“Mrs. Soames gave birth to a healthy boy,” she announced. “You all know the babe is her first so she will need your help over the next few weeks—and bits of advice—in small doses.”
Everyone chuckled. Hadley had learned mothers were all too willing to overshare when it came to indoctrinating a new mother into their fold.
“I will visit them again tomorrow. In the meantime, please take good care of them.”
She left the small cottage, tired but exhilarated after staying up all night with Mrs. Soames during her labor. First babies took their time coming and the Soames’ son had been no exception. Mounting her horse, she swung her leg over, once again grateful that she wore breeches most of the time. Men certainly had the right idea in claiming them. It made movement and simple activities such as riding so much easier to accomplish. Being out and about on the estate most days, Hadley found wearing trousers more convenient. True, she had shocked many of the tenants and servants when she started wearing them a few years ago but she had found them practical and durable. The only subsequent problem was that she now hated donning gowns for when she went into the village for church services or shopping. Still, she knew she could only stretch the bounds of propriety so far.
Riding across the land, she inhaled the clean air of morning and drank in the green of England in the spring. She enjoyed the milder weather in the south, having come from near the Scottish border almost a decade ago when she became a ward to the duke. The years had seen her grow in confidence, the duke instilling a strong work ethic in her. She had gone from following him about the estate to actually managing it, due to his poor health and the retirement of his steward. For five years, ever since Hardwick’s gout had flared up so badly that he had become almost bedridden, Hadley had been the duke’s eyes and ears in all things. He had come to trust her implicitly in all matters.
She left her horse with a groom at the stables and headed to the house. Her heart skipped a beat when she spied Doctor Sloop’s buggy, attended by one of their footmen. The duke’s color hadn’t looked good last night and his wheezing had increased. He had also had a cough he couldn’t seem to shake. Worry filled her as she entered the house.
Radmore greeted her. “The birth went well, my lady?”
“Yes. Mrs. Soames has a healthy son. What about His Grace? I saw Dr. Sloop is here.”
A shadow crossed the butler’s face. “After you left to attend the birth, His Grace had a difficult night. His breathing has been quite labored this morning and Dixon suggested the doctor come to see to His Grace.”
“I will go to him now.”
“My lady,” the butler cautioned, “you might wish to wash first. I will have hot water sent up at once. In fact, I anticipated your arrival and it has been simmering as we awaited your arrival.”
Hadley glanced down and saw the blood covering her. The duke had an aversion to blood.
“Right as always, Radmore.”
“Oh, and a letter came from the marquess, my lady. I will send it up with your water.”
She quickly went to her room and peeled off her stained clothes. Millie, who served as her lady’s maid at times, entered with two pails of water, one steaming. A folded piece of parchment was tucked under her arm. Hadley retrieved it and set it on a nearby table.
“I hear it’s a boy for Mrs. Soames,” the servant said. “You look a fright, my lady. Let’s get you cleaned up so you can go and be with His Grace.”
Millie dipped cloths into the hot water and wiped away the blood and grime from Hadley’s long night of work. She washed her hands and donned fresh clothes.
“Don’t worry about my hair, Millie. My braid will do. I need to see His Grace now.”
Hadley claimed the letter from the marquess and hurried across the hall. She entered the duke’s sitting room and found Dr. Sloop waiting. The physician rose.
“Good morning, my lady.”
“Good morning, Doctor. How is His Grace?”
“His condition has grown serious rather quickly.” He paused. “I fear it is the pneumonia.”
A cold lump formed in the pit of her belly. Her parents had both died from the pneumonia. She had dreaded the sickness ever since.
“How serious?” she asked quickly.
“I will do what I can. The best thing is to make His Grace comfortable. Keep him warm. Have adequate pillows propping him up in order to aid his labored breathing.”
Her throat grew thick at the news. “You are saying the end is near?”
“I fear it is, my lady. His Grace has been in ill health for some time, as you know. In his weakened condition, the pneumonia has gripped him. It could be a few days. With luck, a week or two.”
Desolation filled her. The old man, who had been so crusty and difficult when she had first arrived, had eventually thawed in his demeanor and they had grown quite close over the years. She hadn’t imagined life without him yet she knew now to prepare herself for that very time.
“Thank you for your honesty, Dr. Sloop. Not every physician would be so forthcoming with a woman.”
He smiled. “You have never been one given to hysteria, my lady. You are as calm and competent as any man of my acquaintance. I will return early this evening to check on His Grace.”
She collapsed onto a chair, her head reeling. Then she glanced at the letter still in her hand.
Over the years, she had gotten to know the duke’s son quite well through his correspondence. He wrote regularly, usually once a month, except for a gap of several months a few years ago. When the marquess’ first letter arrived after she had come to Hardwell Hall and the duke ordered it burned, Hadley had boldly marched over to Radmore and taken it, proclaiming that the duke might not want to read it—but she certainly did.
She had instructed the butler to bring any future letters received from the marquess to her.
And thus began her one-sided friendship with Sebastian Cooper.
For over a year, she read the young lieutenant’s letters to his father. In them, he described his fellow officers and the soldiers under him. The training. The drills. The terrible food. He had a way with words, painting pictures she easily created in her mind. She could see everything he wrote about. Gradually, she began dropping bits of information about Sebastian and what he wrote about in her conversations with the duke, piquing the old man’s curiosity until he finally demanded she read all the previous letters that his son had written to him. Hadley had every one of them and had re-read them multiple times between new ones arriving.
After that, Radmore would bring her a new letter and she would share it with the duke. He would grunt rather than comment. She asked if he wished to write his son back but he refused. She then took it upon herself to find out the cause of their estrangement, knowing the old man would never share that with her. From the servants, Hadley learned the that duke had been a wild one, one of the biggest rakes in Polite Society. His mother had demanded upon her deathbed that her son wed and get himself an heir. Hardwick had been forty when he did so, marrying an eighteen-year-old golden-haired beauty, who had given birth to their only son, Sebastian.
After Sebastian came, the duchess suffered multiple miscarriages and stillbirths before dying alongside her last babe after a decade of marriage. According to various servants, things had never been the same between the duke and the marquess after the duchess’ death. A deep gulf widened between boy and father and remained so for over ten years, when the son left for the Napoleonic wars.
Hadley knew it was rare for a marquess to purchase a commission. Usually, the military was reserved for second sons. Heirs—especially to dukedoms—did not march off to war. Knowing His Grace as she did, she knew the last conversation between the pair had been bitter and angry.
Yet Sebastian wrote to his father as any dutiful son would. Over the years, the officer moved from writing descriptions of everything he saw to the ugliness of war. He shared his fears regarding the battles fought alongside his men. His hopes for England’s victory over the wily Corsican. He laid his soul bare. She felt she knew the marquess better than she had known anyone in her life. It was as if Sebastian were the person she was closest to, even closer than she was to Hardwick.
Yet he hadn’t a clue she existed.
Sometimes, she wondered if she should have ever started reading his correspondence. His words had been meant for his father, not her. Yet if she hadn’t intervened, the duke would never have read a word written to him by his son.
Hadley decided the time had come to write the marquess. Or Colonel Marbury, as he signed his letters. She knew it wasn’t the done thing, a lady writing to a gentleman she had never met. The extenuating circumstances called for it, however. Sebastian needed to know of his father’s serious illness and imminent death. She doubted he would abandon his men, though. Not with Bonaparte having escaped Elba and marching on Paris six weeks ago. Her gut told her the clash between the Anglo Alliance and French troops would be looming soon. She had learned long ago from Sebastian’s letters that duty and honor meant the most to him. He would see this fight through until the end. Still, she would write and inform him of his father’s condition. Once the duke passed, she would continue to see to his affairs until Sebastian came home for good and took up the duties of being the Duke of Hardwick.
She refolded the letter and placed it into her pocket before crossing the room to the bedchamber. Inside, she saw Dixon, the duke’s valet, sitting at his bedside. The servant had dark circles under his eyes.
He rose as she approached. “His Grace has been asking for you, my lady, though he’s asleep now.”
“Thank you for staying with him, Dixon. I know you were awake all night seeing to his needs. Go and get some rest. I will stay with His Grace until you return.”
The valet knew better than to argue with her. Hadley had a reputation for standing her ground. He rose and left the room. She took his place, the chair warm, and reached for the old man’s hand, wrapping both of hers around his. She noted the blueness of his skin and how his body shook with chills and fever.
After a good hour of listening to his labored breathing, the duke opened his eyes. She saw relief in them when he recognized she had come.
“Hadley. You are here,” he rasped.
“I am, Your Grace. Do you need anything?”
He sighed and then coughed, wincing as it racked his body. “No. Just your company, my dear.”
They sat in companionable silence for some minutes and then he asked about the baby that she had gone to deliver the previous evening. She told him about the birth. How nervous Mrs. Soames had been, delivering a child for the first time. The duke had always been interested in the fine details no matter what the topic and she gave them to him, as always. Then she mentioned receiving a new letter from Sebastian.
“Read it to me,” he urged before another coughing fit came hit.
She let it pass and pressed some lukewarm tea upon him. He drank it but refused to eat anything from the tray sitting beside the bed.
Hadley read the latest letter and then set it aside. “Sebastian sounds worried,” she noted.
The duke nodded sagely. “He should be. Bonaparte is the wrong side of mad. And I am sure Marbury blames himself for what happened.”
Hadley knew the duke referred to Sebastian leaving Elba Island, where the French emperor had been exiled after his abdication. Lord Castlereagh, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, had assigned Colonel Neil Campbell as the British commissioner stationed on Elba. His purpose was to keep an eye on Bonaparte. Campbell had, at Wellington’s suggestion, added Sebastian to his small staff. Sebastian had written to his father of Campbell’s concerns regarding the emperor, worried Bonaparte would try and flee the island and make another run at seizing power. Campbell had sent Sebastian from the Mediterranean to London at the beginning of February to air his concerns about Bonaparte’s intentions.
By the time Sebastian reached England, though, Colonel Campbell had also left Elba for Livorno on HMS Partridge. He carried a detailed dispatch for Lord Castlereagh, with new information Sebastian didn’t possess. By the time Campbell returned to Elba after his brief sojourn, Bonaparte had vanished. Wellington, who had become plenipotentiary to the Congress of Vienna, returned immediately to military duty. Sebastian wrote to his father that he had rejoined his former commander, who was now in charge of the Anglo-Allied army set to go up against the French army once more.
“He shouldn’t blame himself,” Hadley defended. “Colonel Campbell sent Sebastian to London. It is not his fault the emperor escaped during Sebastian’s absence.”
“Campbell never should have left Elba,” the duke said. “My son wouldn’t have.”
It warmed her heart to hear His Grace finally use the words my son. The duke never called Sebastian by name and only upon rare occasions referenced him as Marbury. She knew she should also think of him as Marbury or the colonel.
But he always seemed like Sebastian to her.
She still could picture him on the midnight black he rode, his fair hair blowing in the breeze, his posture perfect. A handsome, determined man setting out to give his best for his country. Hadley believed she knew him better than probably anyone, thanks to the dozens of letters she had read of his over the years. If he were as worried as he sounded, then things were dire. She knew the inevitable battle—or battles—would occur, pitting the coalition against the resurgent French army.
Hadley prayed that Sebastian would survive this war and come home.
It was foolish, she knew. But somewhere along the way, she had fallen in love with the man behind those letters. She prayed for his safe return every night, bargaining with God to protect him. And when he finally did arrive at Hardwell Hall?
She would be a total stranger to him.
The duke let out a long sigh and she saw he had fallen asleep. She would sit by his side until Dixon returned in a few hours. Then she would write Colonel Sebastian Marbury and let him know about the serious condition of his father. Hadley knew he wouldn’t be able to leave. Even if he could, Sebastian was a man who would fight to the bitter end for God and country. His loyalty to Wellington alone would keep him by the duke’s side until the threat of Bonaparte had ended—or Sebastian lost his life.
When the valet returned, Hadley went straight to her study and wrote to the man she respected and harbored deep feelings for. She didn’t mince words, knowing his time was always short. She informed him of his father’s ill health and how Dr. Sloop anticipated the duke’s demise in the next few weeks. She also added a few lines of encouragement, hoping Sebastian would take them to heart.
She decided to sign her correspondence as H. Hampton. A letter wasn’t the place to explain who she was and why she was residing in the duke’s household, much less why she was the one writing to him of His Grace’s impending death.
Hadley found Radmore and asked that he post the letter to Colonel Marbury at once. The butler raised one eyebrow briefly, the only sign he was shocked that a missive was leaving Hardwell Hall, bound for the marquess after so many years of silence.
Wanting to feel closer to Sebastian, she went and changed into a gown and went out to the garden, where she cut a bouquet of flowers. She then drove a buggy to the village graveyard, where she went to the grave of the Duchess of Hardwick. She had taken to placing flowers on the duchess’ grave several times a year.
Kneeling, she set the flowers on the earth in front of the tombstone and said, “I know you loved Sebastian, Your Grace, and you watch over him from heaven. I pray that he will remain safe and that this awful war will finally come to an end. I desperately want to meet your boy someday soon. I think we could become great friends.”
Hadley rose. She had no friends beyond the duke. They had constantly traveled to his various estates during her first four years with him, helping her become familiar with Hardwick’s vast holdings. These last five years, once the gout slowed him considerably, had them remaining at Hardwell Hall, where she had worked to keep the household running smoothly and dealt with the tenants both here and at the other holdings of the duke. She had made some acquaintances in the village and attended the few assemblies held each year, getting to dance a bit, which was something she enjoyed immensely. She kept busy but realized at times she was lonely. She longed for a family and foolishly had envisioned Sebastian as her husband and the father of her children in daydreams too numerous to count.
Hadley desperately wanted Sebastian to come home. The young girl who had caught a brief glimpse of a dashing, handsome marquess had fallen in love with the war hero he had become. She wanted to be his friend—and so much more. She told herself it would be next to impossible for this to occur and yet hope trickled through her at the thought of building a life with a man she had grown to admire.
She would be practical, though. Bonaparte must be defeated permanently. Only then would Sebastian resign his commission and come home to assume his role as the new duke. When he did, there might be a possibility of him getting to know her as she knew him. Even then, he might have corresponded with some sweetheart he knew before the war. She must prepare herself for that in case he came home with plans to wed another.
If he didn’t, though, Hadley dreamed of the chance to make a life with Sebastian.
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