Duke of Renown (Dukes of Distinction Book 1)
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 with a broken heart . . .A soldier who never dreamed he'd become a duke . . .
Phoebe Smythe, Countess of Borwick, suffers a tragic miscarriage when she learns her husband and young son have been killed in a carriage accident. The grieving widow retreats to an isolated cottage on the coast of Cornwall, where she finds a smuggler who's washed ashore, blood leaking from a bullet wound.
Captain Andrew Graham returns home from the Napoleonic Wars after the death of his older brother, finding his father on his deathbed. Soon he becomes the Duke of Windham and must deal not only with numerous responsibilities but his wayward half-brother, who has amassed a mountain of debt and then shoots Andrew so he can become the new duke.
Andrew awakens to an angel of mercy, Mrs. Smith, a middle-class widow who nurses him back to health. She thinks he's a criminal, which amuses him, but he soon falls in love with her beauty and spirit. On the day he decides to ask for her hand in marriage, she disappears and he has no way to find her—until he spies her across a London ballroom.
Though her heart belongs to the Cornish smuggler she left behind, Phoebe places herself once more on the Marriage Mart. She yearns to be a mother again—which means finding a husband.
What will Phoebe do when she learns that her Mr. Andrew is none other than the famous Duke of Renown?
Find the answer in The Duke of Renown, Book 1 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.
Dukes of Distinction
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: February 9, 2021
Publisher: Dragonblade Publishing, Inc.
Print pages: 218
Reader says this book is...: entertaining story (1)
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
Duke of Renown (Dukes of Distinction Book 1)
Phoebe’s eyes flew open as she was jolted out of sleep. Nausea caused her stomach to roil. She tossed the bedclothes away and raced to the chamber pot, barely reaching it in time as she dropped to her knees before it. She rose unsteadily and went to the basin, where she rinsed the sour taste from her mouth and then washed her face for good measure. Padding back to her bed, she climbed into it, sinking into the pillows.
She was with child again.
Joy filled her as she finally admitted to herself the obvious. It had been over three months since her courses had come. She had waited years for this to happen.
She had conceived Nathan on her wedding night. Nine months to the day of her marriage to Edmund Smythe, Earl of Borwick, she had given birth to a healthy boy. Nathan had become the light of her life and made these past five years the happiest she’d ever known.
She had thought more children would quickly follow since she was obviously fertile but none made an appearance. After she birthed their son, Borwick rarely came to her bed. He was two decades older than Phoebe and she’d heard women talk of how men aged and had trouble performing the marital act. His infrequent visits to her bed troubled her but she had no say in the matter.
Until last Christmas.
Borwick had indulged in more wassail than he should have—and Phoebe used that to her advantage. She crept into his bed that night, sliding under the bedclothes, something she’d never done and would probably never have the courage to do again. Her husband had always come to her bedchamber. Their couplings were short and took place in the dark. She did what she could to tease his cock to life as he drunkenly slurred a series of words together that made no sense to her.
Her efforts were now rewarded. She couldn’t wait to tell her husband the news. He would probably want another boy but she would like a girl this time. One to dress in pretty clothes. She’d put ribbons in her daughter’s hair and buy her dolls. They would be as close as sisters and Phoebe would take care in helping the girl choose her wardrobe when her Season arrived.
And she would never, ever make her wed a man if she didn’t love him.
Her own father had done that to Phoebe. He scoffed at the notion of love, taking matters into his own hands and arranging her marriage to Borwick. The earl was a widower almost twenty years her senior, childless, and as practical a man as Phoebe had ever met. Love hadn’t come but at least they got on well enough, though she preferred their country estate in Devon, while he enjoyed the social aspects of London.
They’d arrived in the great city last night. Borwick was happy to be back at their townhouse so he could meet up with his friends in the House of Lords and at his various social clubs. Though shy, Phoebe would have been happy to attend a few events of the Season with her husband. Now, though, her gowns would grow too small for her. Relief filled her, her increasing being an excuse to forego all the social events.
Of course, she would have to attend the ball at the end of the first week of the Season since it was being given by her sister, the new Viscountess Burton. Letty had wed at Season’s end last year, her first, and was eager to host her first large social gathering. That would be held three weeks from now. Phoebe would work with her modiste on designing a gown that would hide her condition and still be fashionable. After that, it would give her more time to spend with Nathan.
She closed her eyes, feeling tired, knowing her maid would appear soon with her morning breakfast tray. Moments later, a knock at the door sounded. Not only did her meal arrive, but Nathan came with it, barreling in gleefully and jumping into bed with her, snuggling close. These were the times that meant the world to Phoebe. While her husband remained distant, her son was always happy to give her a hug and a kiss.
“Good morning, Mama.”
“Hello, my beautiful boy.” She kissed his brow.
Frowning, he said, “Girls are beautiful, Mama. I’m a boy.”
“Well, then. Good morning to my handsome boy,” she declared. “Is that better?” she asked, tousling his hair.
“Papa says we’re going to see the dinosaurs today,” he said excitedly.
“At the British Museum?”
Nathan shrugged, obviously not knowing the location of these dinosaurs.
“You’ll need to be on your very best behavior, Nathan. You may see one of Papa’s friends while you are out. Remember your manners.”
“I will,” he promised and kissed her. “I need to eat breakfast with Nanny.”
He clambered from the bed as his nursery governess appeared at the door.
“There you are, Viscount. You’ve got a nice porridge waiting for you in the schoolroom.”
Nathan ran across the room and took the servant’s hand. Looking over his shoulder, he called, “Goodbye, Mama.”
“He’s a whirlwind,” her maid declared.
Phoebe smiled. “I wouldn’t have him any other way.”
She ate her toast and drank her hot chocolate, happy not only about the new baby but also glad that Borwick was taking Nathan on an outing. He’d told her he knew nothing about babies when Nathan was born and had never once held his son. Her husband had kept his distance while Nathan learned to crawl and then walk and talk. It was only within the last six months that Borwick had anything at all to do with the boy. Phoebe hoped today’s trip to the British Museum would be the start of a new relationship between father and son.
Setting the tray aside, she dressed for the day with the servant’s help. She wanted to speak to Borwick before he and Nathan left the house.
Going downstairs, she spied their butler. “Do you know where Lord Borwick is?”
“Still in the breakfast room, my lady.”
Phoebe headed there and stopped just outside the door. It wouldn’t do to share her good news in front of the footmen stationed about the room. She entered and went to her husband, who pored over the morning newspapers as he sipped his tea.
Kissing the top of his head, she said, “I hear you are taking our son to see dinosaurs today, my lord.”
He looked up in surprise since they were never demonstrative toward one another.
“Why, yes. There is a new exhibit of bones that have been reconstructed. It’s a something Rex and is supposed to stand thirteen meters high. The bones, that is. I gather they’ve tried to restore what they’ve found on some archaeological dig.”
“Nathan is terribly excited. As much to see these dinosaur bones as to spend time with his father.” She paused. “Would you come see me in my salon before you leave the house, my lord?”
He frowned. “I’ll be another half-hour or so.”
“Very well. I will see you then.”
Phoebe left and went to her salon. She dashed off a brief note to Letty, asking her and Burton to come to tea this afternoon so that she could share her news with them and rang for a servant.
“This is to be delivered to my sister at once,” she instructed.
After that, she worked on menus for the coming week, which she hadn’t done yet because of their late arrival Monday night. All yesterday had been spent supervising the unpacking and seeing to things in the household as they opened the place for the next several months.
Just as she completed her task, her husband entered. Phoebe rose and met him.
“What do you need?” he asked brusquely, sounding inconvenienced to have been asked to stop by and visit with her briefly.
She tried not to be hurt at his tone. They rarely spent time together, which she’d discovered was actually a good thing. They lived under one roof but led separate lives.
“I know I rarely ask you to come here, Borwick, but I have some very good news.” She beamed at him. “We’re going to have another child. Next autumn.”
His usually solemn face lit with pleasure. “You are certain?”
“As much as I can be. It should be in late September.”
Borwick took her by the shoulders and kissed her cheek, surprising her. “This is most excellent news, my lady. You will need to see the doctor, of course, and confirm things with him.”
“Yes, I can arrange that,” she replied.
“I don’t want you doing anything strenuous.”
She smiled at his sudden thoughtfulness. “I won’t.”
He frowned. “I had wanted us to host a dinner next week.”
Chuckling, she said, “I am having a baby, Borwick. Months from now. I can plan a dinner with ease.”
“It’s just that it has been so long. I know we have Nathan but . . .” His voice trailed off.
“I understand. I will be careful. I doubt I’ll go to many events this Season, though. Most likely, just Letty’s ball.”
“No dancing,” he told her firmly.
Though she loved to dance, Phoebe merely nodded in agreement and added, “Who is it you wish to have for this dinner? And should I plan entertainment for afterward?”
“I’ll give you a list of guests to be invited. It will include a few men who might invest in one of my mines. You could think about having—”
“There you are, Papa!”
Nathan flew into the room and stopped short, seeing the stern look on his father’s face at being interrupted.
“Decorum, young man,” Borwick chided.
Phoebe wanted to protest. Nathan was only five years old. He was a boisterous child, full of good cheer. But what Borwick said was law in their home. When her son looked to her, she shook her head.
Contritely, he said, “I’m sorry, Papa. I’ll be good today.”
“Of course you’ll be good, my boy. You are the future Earl of Borwick.”
Her husband looked back to her. “Thank you for sharing the news with me. We’ll discuss the matter at further length once the boy and I return from our outing.” He touched his son’s shoulder. “Now, kiss your mother goodbye and we’ll be off.”
Phoebe bent and hugged her little boy tightly and then kissed him once. If Borwick hadn’t been present, she would have smothered Nathan’s face in kisses. Her husband didn’t approve of overt physical affection, though, saying it would make their son weak.
She walked them to the front door and said, “I do hope you will return by teatime. Letty and Burton are coming.”
“We should return long before that,” her husband promised.
She watched them head toward the waiting carriage. Nathan looked so happy as he accompanied his father to the vehicle and climbed inside with the help of a footman. Pride filled her, knowing how special her little boy was. Then she held her hands to her belly, thrilled at the new life growing within her and feeling doubly blessed.
Phoebe called at her seamstress’ shop later that morning, explaining to the modiste that she was with child and would need to change the previous order that she’d placed by mail. Fortunately, Madame Toufours hadn’t started on much, wanting Phoebe to pick out several of the materials. They settled on a half-dozen gowns now and she would return as her waistline expanded and new dresses would be created for her.
She returned home and found Letty had replied to her note, assuring her that she and Burton would come for tea today and to catch up, since it had been several months since they had seen one another. Phoebe smiled, thinking how Letty had been her first child. Their mother had died when Phoebe was ten and Letty three and it had fallen to the older sister to mother her younger one.
Retreating to her bedchamber because she was exhausted by the outing, she took a nap. Upon awakening, she completed what she believed would be a suitable menu for her husband’s investors when they came to dine and discuss business. She would share the dinner party menu with Borwick when he returned and they could talk over ideas regarding the evening’s entertainment. She was fond of the pianoforte and hoped they might book a pianist.
By now, it was almost time for tea and she went downstairs to await her sister and brother-in-law in the drawing room. They arrived and it was obvious the couple had grown close since their marriage last August. Both greeted her warmly and she had them sit as the teacart arrived.
“Will Lord Borwick be joining us?” asked Burton.
“I told him you were expected before he left this morning. He took Nathan to see the new dinosaur exhibit at the British Museum. I would have thought they would have returned by now,” she replied, recalling that Borwick had said they should arrive home in plenty of time for him to take tea.
“How is my darling nephew?” Letty asked. “Growing straight and strong?”
Phoebe laughed. “You will be surprised when you see him. He’s grown so tall in just a matter of weeks.”
“Nathan will be going away to school before you know it,” Burton proclaimed.
The thought saddened her and she determined to make the most of the next few years before her boy left home to continue his education.
Letty swatted her husband. “No mother likes to think of her darling boy leaving her.”
Grinning, Phoebe confided, “There may be another boy in the family. Or perhaps, a girl. We also are expecting a child in late September.”
“What?” Letty gasped. “How wonderful!”
The sisters hugged again and Phoebe poured out for them. They all chose sandwiches for their plates and various sweets. She only hoped she would be able to keep the food down.
Burton found the spice cake to his liking and said, “Your cook must give ours this recipe.”
As teatime ended, Phoebe grew concerned that Borwick and Nathan hadn’t yet returned. She hid her anxiety as she walked her guests to the door.
“Thank you for coming.”
She and Letty embraced and the butler opened the door. It took her aback to see a man standing there, his fist raised to knock on the door.
“My lady? Lady Borwick?” he asked anxiously.
“Yes, I am Lady Borwick,” she replied warily.
“Might I come in?” he asked. “I am Dr. Morris.”
“Did my husband send you?”
This man wasn’t their usual physician. She had told Borwick she would take care of arranging to see a doctor.
“In a way,” he replied vaguely.
“Come in,” she invited, confused by what he’d said.
Letty slipped her hand around Phoebe’s and said, “I am Lady Burton. This is my husband, Lord Burton. I am Lady Borwick’s sister.”
“Very good,” the doctor said, looking slightly relieved. He turned to Phoebe. “My lady, I’m afraid I am the bearer of bad news. And there is no easy way to tell you.”
Her heart quickened. “Just say it then.”
“Lord Borwick and your son were in a carriage accident.”
She tightened her grip on Letty’s hand. “Where are they? I must go to them at once.”
“That is not possible, Lady Borwick.” Sadness blanketed the doctor’s face. “I’m afraid your husband and son did not survive.”
Her entire body went numb, cold seeping in as if it were a blustery winter day. “What?”
“Your son died instantly. Lord Borwick lingered a bit. I was passing by and saw the accident occur. I rendered aid as best I could.” Morris shook his head. “My condolences.”
“No,” Phoebe moaned, dropping to her knees. “No.”
Burton and the butler rushed to her, grasping her elbows and trying to bring her to her feet. She grew lightheaded, dizzy, and then queasiness filled her. Then an awful cramping clawed within her. She groaned.
“My baby!” she cried. “No, no, no . . .”
Something warm spilled from between her legs, dribbling down them. She felt herself being lifted and carried up the stairs as everything went black. Then someone was shaking her. A cup was held to her lips.
“This will calm you, Lady Borwick,” the awful man said. The one who’d told her about Nathan and Borwick.
The doctor forced her to drink it. Shadows huddled around her as the cramps grew stronger. She was losing her unborn child and couldn’t stop it. Bitter tears spilled down her cheeks.
Then darkness crept over her and dragged her under.
Another day in hell.
Captain Andrew Graham urged his men on, their third assault of the day. Weariness filled him, yet as a British officer and leader, he encouraged the soldiers to push onward. The sounds of war assaulted his senses. Swords clanging. Cannons firing at regular intervals. Cries from the injured—and dying. He ignored it all, continuing to swing his sword, cutting down men both left and right. Sweat dripped into his eyes, stinging them. He blinked rapidly, not able to take the time to wipe a sleeve across his face, else a blow of steel might be the last of him.
From a distance, he heard the sound of retreat being called by the enemy. Relief swept through him, knowing he wouldn’t lose any more of his men today. The opponent that rushed toward him froze in his tracks, having reached Andrew.
“Go!” he shouted at the man.
The soldier hesitated a moment and then lowered his sword. As scores of men turned to flee, Andrew saw something in this man’s eyes, however.
“Don’t,” he warned as the man tried to thrust his sword a final time.
To stop him, Andrew sank his own blade into his enemy’s belly. His action halted his opponent. Confusion—then pain—filled the man’s face.
“I told you to go,” he said quietly, bitterness filling him as he placed his boot flat against the injured man’s hip and pushed hard. The solider fell to the ground that already ran red with blood as Andrew claimed his sabre again.
“I told you to go,” he repeated, anguish in every word.
This soldier would have lived to fight another day. He might have survived this interminable war. Gone home to his sweetheart. Or wife and children. Instead, his greed at wanting to take one more life cost him his own.
Turning, he surveyed the battlefield as men retreated both to the north and south. His eyes swept across the still forms as far as the eye could see. He should be hardened to war by now after five years. It might be another five—even longer—until the threat of Bonaparte was put down and Andrew could return to the green fields of his beloved England.
With a heavy sigh, he made his way back to give his third and final report of the day to Colonel Symmons, his commanding officer. He passed men bearing wounded soldiers on stretchers, their agonizing cries adding to his heartache.
“Andrew!” a voice called.
He turned and saw the Marquess of Marbury headed his way. Sebastian was an old chum of his from their university days. Together with Jon, another Cambridge friend, and George and Weston, whom he’d attended both Eton and Cambridge with, the five had spent years together studying, laughing, and talking incessantly about the fairer sex. Only he and Sebastian had entered the army after university. The other three men, now all dukes, had remained in England. In this moment, Andrew longed for those simple days of sitting for examination and celebrating afterward at the local alehouse with his comrades.
“It’s good to see you survived today’s skirmishes,” he said, shaking his friend’s hand. Then he noticed the change in his Sebastian’s uniform. “You’re a major now! Congratulations.”
Sebastian shrugged. “I think enough of the officers ahead of me have been killed in action. With their ranks thinning, I’m just at the right place in the right moment.”
“You’ve always been much too humble,” Andrew chided. “If there is a break in the action, we should celebrate your promotion, Major.”
“I’d like to catch up,” Sebastian said. “I have much to tell you. I’ve been appointed to Wellington’s staff.”
Andrew beamed. “Then we have even more to celebrate. I must go and make my final report of the day to my commanding officer. I’ll look for you later, all right?”
The two men parted. Before he reported to Symmons, Andrew made a detour toward the surgical tents. After their second charge, Andrew had witnessed the fall of Thomas Bagwell. The young private had earned a special place in Andrew’s heart and he’d thought to ask Bagwell to be his batman since his was retiring at the end of next month. Having seen Bagwell’s leg injury, he didn’t know if the young man had survived or not
He entered the first of the two tents where operations occurred. The tinny smell of blood assaulted him. Making his way to the surgeon operating, he asked, “Did Private Bagwell come through here?”
The weary man looked up. “What injury? I don’t know names anymore. They come and go too fast, Captain.”
“His leg. The right one. Bagwell has carrot orange hair.”
The surgeon nodded toward his right. Andrew saw a huge mountain of severed limbs, the legs still wearing their boots. He pitied the poor souls who would be required to strip the boots and bury the limbs.
“I amputated his leg. He’ll be that way if he made it,” the surgeon added, indicating the exit to the tent. “Try one more over. The hospital.”
Andrew quit the tent and went to the hospital, walking rows of cots as men moaned. Then he spied Bagwell’s familiar mop of hair and knelt next to him.
“It’s Captain Graham, Thomas.” He took the private’s hand. “How are you?”
With a crooked grin, Bagwell said, “I’m right well, Captain. Missing a leg and all, but I’ll get by.”
He knew Bagwell came from a dairy farm near Hertfordshire and wondered how easy it would be to milk a cow sitting on a stool with only one leg for balance.
“Chin up, Bagwell. I’ll come to see you tomorrow.”
The young man grimaced and then said, “Thank you, Captain.”
Andrew left and made no other stops as he headed to Colonel Symmons’ tent. He fell in line, no one joining him after he arrived, so he was the last to enter the officer’s tent. He gave his report, estimating the number of casualties in his unit and citing two individuals for exceptional bravery during action.
“Thank you, Captain Graham,” said the older man. He paused and studied Andrew for a moment and then said, “I have a letter for you, Captain.”
The colonel picked it up from a pile of papers before him. Handing it over, he said, “Read it here—then we will speak.”
Curiosity filled him as he looked at the letter, the handwriting unfamiliar. Why would he need to read it and then discuss the contents with Symmons? Andrew broke the seal and his eyes fell to the signature, seeking a clue as to the sender’s identity.
Lord Raymond Barrington.
The nobleman worked in London’s War Office. He was also the oldest friend of the Duke of Windham, Andrew’s father. Trepidation filled him.
Captain Graham –
I am sorry to be writing to you under such circumstances. I have not seen you for many years but your father has kept me apprised of your endeavors for king and country. Know that your service is much appreciated by the citizens of England.
Having said that, I regret to inform you of two grievous events, both related, and both affecting you and your future.
Your brother, Ward, was involved in a tragic accident in his phaeton and was buried at Windowmere this morning. When news of this first reached your father, Windham suffered a heart attack. According to the doctors, he is on his deathbed in London.
That leaves you, dear boy, as the new marquess and heir apparent. Even if your father survives, he will be in no state to see to the many affairs being the Duke of Windham entails and if the doctors are to be believed, you will become the new duke sooner rather than later.
I have taken the liberty of writing your commanding officer, informing him of the situation. You’ll need to sell your commission and return home immediately. Send word to me once you reach London in order to inform me of your father’s health. I will do all I can to help you make this transition.
Lord Raymond Barrington
Shock filled Andrew. Then anger set in. Ward had always lived on the edge, taking unnecessary risks. The so-called phaeton accident was undoubtedly a race gone awry. Knowing his older brother, Ward had pushed the horse and vehicle beyond their limits. His careless actions had caused his death. It shouldn’t surprise anyone. Ward had lived in luck for too many years. His recklessness had finally caught up to him.
It was his father’s health which concerned him now. The duke had always been physically and emotionally strong. He’d outlived two wives, both of whom died in childbirth, the first when she birthed Andrew and the second delivering his half-brother, Francis. Windham had always been larger than life. To see how Ward’s death had affected his father pained Andrew.
What Lord Barrington left unsaid was that Andrew better not get himself killed, else Francis would inherit the dukedom. His half-brother was immature, irresponsible, and none too bright. He’d been tossed out of Cambridge. At least that’s was what their father had shared in a letter to Andrew. He suspected things were far worse, but the duke had always turned a blind eye to his youngest, allowing Francis free rein to do whatever he pleased.
Colonel Symmons cleared his throat. “I see you’ve finished. Lord Barrington also wrote to me and I understand you are to resign your commission immediately and return to England. I can help arrange your transport.” He paused. “I am sorry for your loss, Graham. I lost my own brother and it’s never easy. I hope His Grace will recover quickly. But if not, you have the fine makings to be a duke.”
“Thank you, sir,” Andrew replied with a sinking feeling. He only hoped to arrive at their London townhome to see his father one more time.
It took Andrew a week to reach London. Colonel Symmons had helped him to arrange transport on a vessel bound for southern England. He had arrived with the clothes on his back, a spare shirt, and his razor. His commanding officer had even given him pocket money to help him reach London. He now disembarked at the docks and walked off the ship with nothing but a small satchel, all he had to show for five years at war against Bonaparte. He’d left England with a light heart, prone to teasing others. He returned now at twenty-seven, feeling twice his age, no spark of fun left within him. He’d witnessed too many deaths to ever think to smile again.
London’s streets teemed with others as he made his way from the docks. Before long, he spied a hansom cab and flagged it down.
“Returning from the war, Captain?” the driver asked with a friendly smile.
“Yes,” he replied curtly.
Once upon a time, he would have carried on a conversation with this man. Today, he was too weary to engage in small talk. Andrew boarded the vehicle and gave his father’s London address. The cabbie merely nodded and climbed into the driver’s seat and they were off. As they made their way through the streets, he thought how civilized things seemed. Well-dressed people going about their business. Carriages making their orderly way down the streets. Stalls open, people shopping for wares. He closed his eyes and rubbed them, still seeing bloodshed and hearing cannon fire in his head. He shook off the thoughts. He was home now. Where he’d longed to be for so long.
But not under these circumstances.
I need to prepare myself, he thought. Especially since from Lord Barrington’s description, he should expect the worst.
Arriving at Belgravia, he emptied his pocket and handed over the last of his coins.
“No need, sir,” the driver said, refusing to take the money offered. “You’ve been at war. Fighting for the rest of us.”
“I insist,” Andrew said. “You need to make a living.” Then he noticed the cabbie was missing a hand and understanding flooded him.
“The war?” he asked.
The man nodded. Glancing down at his missing hand, he said quietly, “I’ve learned to live without it. I care for my horse and all the equipment. When it gives me a bit o’ trouble, I just think about all the men in my squadron who weren’t as lucky to come home as I was.”
“Do you have a family?”
“I had my parents but they both died while I was on the Continent. No wife or children. And now?” He shrugged. “Who’d have me?”
Andrew made an instant decision. “I would. What’s your name, Soldier?”
“Robbie Jones, Captain,” the driver replied, his posture indicating he was unsure of what Andrew wanted.
“Do you like driving, Robbie Jones?”
“I do, Captain. As I said, I’ve learned to adjust.”
“My father is the Duke of Windham. I’m sure he could use an additional driver. I’d be happy to extend an offer of employment to you. Unless, of course, you enjoy what you do now, working independently.”
Robbie broke out in a huge grin. “I’d love to come work for the duke. I rent this buggy and horse and most of what I earn goes toward that.”
“Well, then return your horse and vehicle at day’s end and report to this house tomorrow morning. Ask for me. I can’t guarantee you’ll always stay in London. We have several estates throughout England and you might be sent to one of them.”
“Fine by me, Captain.” Robbie grew serious. “I can’t thank you enough, Sir. Life is hard, being as I am and on my own. To have a meal each day and a roof over my head means the world to me.”
Andrew offered his hand and they shook. “Then I’ll see you tomorrow, Robbie. I’ll know more about your duties by then.”
Tears misted the former soldier’s eyes. “Thank you, Captain. God bless you.”
He watched the driver depart and felt good that it was within his power to change at least one veteran’s life for the better. He went to the front door and rapped. It opened and a smiling Whitby greeted him.
“My lord, it does my soul good to see you.”
For a moment, Andrew froze. Then he realized he was no longer Captain Graham or even Mr. Graham. He was a marquess.
Destined to be a duke.
Thrusting out his hand, he shook the butler’s offered hand. “It’s been quite a while, Whitby.”
“It has been that, my lord. Do come in. Let me take that for you.” The butler’s face showed a moment of astonishment at how light the satchel was.
“I didn’t have much to bring home, Whitby,” Andrew explained.
Only memories . . .
“If you’d like, I’ll have the tailor come around tomorrow, my lord. Would you care to use the one your father or brother uses?”
Knowing Ward’s taste ran to the fashionable and flamboyant and his father was always conservative yet elegantly dressed, he said, “I’ll go with Father’s man.”
“Very good, my lord. I’ve had Mrs. Bates prepare your room for you. Would you like a bath first or would you rather see His Grace?”
Whitby handed off the satchel to a nearby footman and they ascended the stairs. Andrew found he approached his father’s rooms with trepidation and prayed Windham would recover from this recent heart attack. It had been too many years since they’d seen one another. All he wanted was a bit of time to spend with the man he worshipped.
Arriving at the suite of rooms designated for the duke, Whitby opened the door. The butler’s sympathetic look told Andrew all he needed to know.
“Thank you, Whitby. I’ll take it from here.”
With a deep breath, Andrew strode through the rooms and reached the bedchamber. Steeling himself, he turned the knob and entered the room.
Moreland Hall, Cornwall—August 1813
Andrew stood. “Good morning, Aunt Helen.”
He helped seat her. A footman quickly filled her cup with tea as another brought her usual poached egg and toast to the breakfast table.
“Are you packed for your return to Devon?” he asked, hoping to avoid the topic he knew was on her mind—and knowing he’d failed by the look of determination of her face.
“You know how I look upon you as a son, Windham,” she began.
He cringed inwardly. His father had been in his grave almost a year now and Andrew still wasn’t used to hearing everyone call him Windham or Your Grace. Even this dear maiden aunt, his father’s sister, had abandoned use of his Christian name and always referred to him as Windham, even in private.
“Yes, Aunt. I am most blessed that you have always been more a mother to me than my aunt.”
She had indeed mothered both him and Ward when his own died giving birth to him. Aunt Helen had done the same with Francis, though she’d had less success in that endeavor. Francis was all about himself and what a person could do for him. Andrew dreaded the next time they met. He’d last seen his half-brother in London a month ago, as the Season had ended. Francis had begged him to pay a slew of debts.
Andrew had refused.
He’d discovered upon his return to England that Francis owed everyone in town and that their father had covered all markers on several previous occasions. When the duke died two weeks after Andrew’s arrival from Spain, the two remaining brothers had sat for a heart-to-heart talk. Andrew told Francis he’d be given a quarterly allowance from now on and he gave him one property to manage in Somerset. A year later, Francis was already begging for more money and the steward in Somerset had resigned in frustration.
He turned his attention back to his aunt.
“You are twenty-eight, my dear boy, and not one to sow wild oats.”
“You need to take a wife,” she said firmly.
“I participated in the past Season, Aunt,” he said patiently, thinking back to the spring and early summer, grateful that he’d been able to reunite with George, Weston, and Jon. None of his friends were remotely interested in finding a wife, especially George and Weston, since their earlier brushes with engagements had ended in disaster. Jon said he’d learned from those two that marriage wasn’t for him. As for George and Weston, they now cut a wide path through Polite Society, being known as the Duke of Charm and the Duke of Disrepute, both swearing never to wed.
“And you made absolutely no progress,” she retorted. “You are the most eligible bachelor in Polite Society, Windham. Women flocked to you at every social event you attended.”
He grimaced. “That’s why I found no one who interested me,” he said, his temper rising. “Aunt Helen, every woman in the ton—unmarried or even those who are wed—sidled up to me. No one wanted to know me. All they wanted was to become my duchess. Or at least say they’d slept with a duke.”
He rose and paced anxiously around the room, a flick of his hand dismissing the ever-present footmen. If they were going to have this conversation, he wanted a small slice of privacy for it.
“Do you think any of those ladies would have given me a second glance before I became Windham?” he asked angrily. “Beyond a few desperate wallflowers who might have considered marriage with an army officer who would never be home?”
Aunt Helen clucked her tongue. “You are too hard on yourself, Andrew.”
Immediately, he noticed the change of name and grew wary.
“You are handsome. Educated. Accomplished. Of course, you would have had your pick of several young ladies. It’s true, a lofty title has attracted more females to you but surely someone appealed to you?”
He stopped pacing. “Frankly? No. Most are girls. Barely out of the schoolroom. They either giggle incessantly while they blush profusely and can make no worthwhile conversation or they are married and have provided their heir and now look for amusement.”
Andrew sighed. “Is it too much to ask for a nice woman of good character and family who can hold a decent conversation? A wife who would be faithful to me and not gallivant about later?”
“Do you mean you are seeking love?” Aunt Helen asked in quiet wonder.
“No,” he said quickly. “Not a love match. I’d never consider the idea. I gave my heart and soul on the battlefield and lost too many men. I have nothing like that left to give. I merely want a good companion. Someone who wants to be a mother and would be devoted to our children.”
He plopped into his chair again. “Sometimes, I wish it had been me who perished on the battlefield and not Ward in his phaeton.”
She gasped. “Never say that, Andrew. You spent a good half a year or more after your father’s death traveling about England, looking after all the estates. Much as I loved your brother, that is something Ward never would have considered doing.”
“I wanted to become familiar with all my properties and how each estate was being managed. Father rarely took us anywhere except the ancestral home in Devon and our townhouse in London. It was good to see the other places.”
“What about this small property in Cornwall? Why are you here now?”
“Because it is far away from London. From people. From people who want something from me,” he admitted. “I love the sea. Walking on the cliffs or along the beach. I needed some time alone after all that’s happened this past year.”
“I understand.” She patted his hand then rose. He followed suit.
“I will see you back in Devon at some point. That is, if you don’t mind me still living at Windowmere with you.”
He took her hand and kissed it. “It is our home. I will always want you there. Even when I wed. You are the mother of my heart, Aunt Helen, and always will be.”
She smiled. “Will you promise me you’ll be open to marriage in the future? I could introduce you to a few eligible women in the neighborhood once you return to Windowmere. If none of these ladies catch your eye, might I draw up a list of young beauties for next Season? But you truly must wed by this time next year, Andrew.”
He wanted neither a young nor especially beautiful woman as his duchess. Andrew thought somewhere among the ton must be a woman other men had overlooked. Not a diamond of the first water but a woman of substance.
“I will find a wife myself, Aunt,” he promised. “I’m eager to start a family.”
She smiled. “That is music to my ears. It has been too long since children freely roamed the grounds of Windowmere and brought laughter to the halls.” She sighed. “I am packed already. I will see you soon?”
“Most likely. I need a little more time here on my own. I’ve correspondence now to deal with.”
She offered her cheek and he kissed it.
“Safe travels, Aunt.”
We hope you are enjoying the book so far. To continue reading...