Empowered by the Earl (Second Sons of London Book 3)
First sons inherit all. Third sons are promised to the church. Second sons do their duty and serve in the military—unless fate intervenes and turns their lives upside down.
Welcome to Second Sons of London, a new Regency Historical Romance series by bestselling author Alexa Aston, where seven men who are second sons lay claim to fabulous wealth and lofty titles and fulfill their destinies when they find their soulmates.
A self-assured earl who doesn’t like rules. A poised beauty mature beyond her years. Neither thinks they want or need love . . .
Major Owen Hasbury returns from the Napoleonic Wars as the new Earl of Danbury. He’s ready to enjoy life and make love to as many women as he can before settling down and siring an heir. His attitude irks his two closest friends, men who have come into recent titles and made love matches.
Louisa Goulding has a reputation as a bit of a bluestocking. She has served as her father’s hostess since her mother’s death years ago and has been an active part of the meetings in their home with her father’s War Office colleagues, giving her little time for social events. With the war over, Louisa wants to fully participate in the Season and finally live a life for herself, finding a husband who will give her children.
At the insistence of mutual friends, Louisa and Owen meet. She calls him out as a rake, telling him she won’t waste any time on him. But her beauty and intelligence intrigue Owen. He becomes friends with Louisa, even teaching her how to kiss, finally realizing the perfect woman is right before him.
Can Owen convince Louisa that he has changed—or will he lose her to another lord at the house party they attend together?
Find the answer in bestselling author Alexa Aston’s Empowered by the Earl, the third book in Second Sons of London.
Each book in Second Sons of London is a standalone story that can be enjoyed out of order.
Book #1: Educated by the Earl
Book #2: Debating with the Duke
Book #3: Empowered by the Earl
Book #4: Made for the Marquess
Book #5: Dubious about the Duke
Book #6: Valued by the Viscount
Book #7: Meant for the Marquess
Release date: May 20, 2022
Publisher: Dragonblade Publishing
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
Empowered by the Earl (Second Sons of London Book 3)
Major Owen Hasbury awoke and stared across the tent at the new officer who had replaced Everett Wayland, Owen’s best friend practically from birth. He and Ev had grown up on adjoining estates and had attended school, university and, finally, war together. As second sons, it had been their only career choice, especially with England at war against Bonaparte.
He missed Ev something awful. His friend, who had received a shoulder wound during last month’s Battle of Vitoria, had received a letter once the battle had ended. A letter which had changed the trajectory of Ev’s life.
Major Everett Wayland was now the Duke of Camden. One of the highest peers in the land. No longer a contemporary of his soldier best friend. Owen had also lost his second closest friend, Major Spencer Haddock. A second son like Owen and Ev, Spence had inherited the title of Earl of Middlefield with the death of his father. Spence had left them last year and had quickly found his countess in Lady Tessa Foster.
With his two dearest friends gone from his life, Owen was selfishly relieved that he still had the cousins on the warfront with him. Percy and Win had rounded out their group of five. They called themselves the Second Sons of London. The trio from schoolboy days had met Percy and Win at university and the five men had become inseparable during those carefree years. They had all entered the army, commissions bought for them by their respective families, and had thought to spend their careers together.
He supposed that he and the cousins would continue in the army until the Little Corporal was finally defeated—and beyond. Second sons didn’t have the luxury of inheriting titles and living off the wealth of their estates. They forged their own paths in the world, the army their true constant, whether during time of war or peace.
Owen rose and his new tentmate, Captain Peters, did so as well, no conversation between them. It wasn’t that Owen didn’t like Peters. He merely missed his friends and did not want to become attached to anyone else who might lose his life in battle. Owen found his heart hardening more as each day passed. Seven long years at war would do that to a man.
He went through some drills with his men and attended staff meetings of officers. Wellington had marched his forces into Madrid after last month’s Battle of Salamanca and plans were afoot for a siege against Burgos soon, most likely next month. Owen hoped the battle would take England one step closer to defeating Bonaparte and his allies.
After a quick evening meal in Win and Percy’s company, he parted from them and returned to his tent. On his cot lay a letter and he wondered if it might be from Spence since Ev wouldn’t have had time to reach England and dash off a letter so soon after his recent departure.
He picked up the letter and sat on his cot, seeing it wasn’t Spence’s handwriting and curious as to who might be writing him. His mother had written him regularly from the time he had entered the army. His father never bothered to send a single missive. Both she and the earl had died during the years he’d been at war. His brother, Lawford, the Earl of Danbury, never corresponded with Owen. In fact, they hadn’t spoken in years. The two brothers had never been close, mostly due to the large age gap between them and the fact that Lawford would inherit the title one day, while his younger brother would spend his life in the army, most likely traveling the world in the crown’s defense.
Breaking the seal, he immediately glanced to the bottom of the page, where he saw it signed by Mr. Sellers. Owen knew the name. It was his father’s longtime solicitor, the man who had purchased Owen’s army commission and seen him off to war since the earl had been too busy to be bothered with trivial matters such as telling a second son goodbye.
His eyes moved to the top of the page and he saw the letter was dated the eighth of May. It had taken over three months to catch up to him, just as the one Ev had received last month from his family’s solicitor. That letter had borne news of the death of Mervyn, Ev’s only brother. It had been brief, saying Mervyn had been grievously injured and had died from his wounds. Since Lawford and Mervyn were peas in a pod, both Owen and Ev had speculated on whether or not Lawford had been with Mervyn when the accident had occurred. In fact, Owen had encouraged Ev, once he reached London, to call upon Lawford and get to the bottom of the story in case his family’s solicitor continued to remain vague.
His eyes returned to the beginning and he began to read.
Dear Major Hasbury,
I am writing to you on behalf of your brother, the Earl of Danbury. Lord Danbury was in the company of the Duke of Camden when both men were viciously attacked. Unfortunately, His Grace died from his injuries, while Lord Danbury was severely hurt. Part of those injuries included one to his head.
I regret to inform you that Lord Danbury has yet to awaken.
This situation leaves his care and the estate in limbo. I would ask that you take a leave of absence from the army and come home to manage the estate and see to your brother’s care.
You may reach me at the address below. Please come to London as soon as possible, as that is where Lord Danbury is recuperating.
Owen snorted. The last thing he would do is ask his commanding officer for an unnecessary leave of absence, which he doubted would even be granted in a time of war. His place was commanding troops in the thick of battle, not playing nursemaid to a selfish brother. That’s what servants and solicitors were for. Besides, he owed Lawford nothing.
He stepped outside his tent and moved to the nearest campfire. Tossing the letter into the flames, he watched it burn until nothing remained and then returned to his tent.
Exhaustion filled Owen as he returned to his tent, too tired to even eat, though satisfaction filled him. England and her allies were one step closer to defeating the Corsican Fiend. Thanks to Wellington’s brilliant battle plan, the combined Anglo-Spanish-Portuguese Army had claimed a decisive victory over Marshal Nicolas Soult’s Imperial French army in southern France at Orthez. Soult’s forces were outnumbered, though they repelled several attacks on their right flank. Eventually, the left and center flanks were overrun, resulting in Soult’s retreat. The orderly retreat had turned chaotic, becoming a mob that scrambled for safety.
Not only had over five hundred French soldiers been killed in battle, but Wellington had just shared in the meeting Owen now came from the early numbers. Over two thousand more French bastards had been wounded and over thirteen hundred taken prisoner. Others who had been conscripted into service were said to be deserting by the dozens.
Wellington wanted to strike while the iron was sizzling. With Soult and his decimated army in retreat, the French commander would not be able to defend both the port of Bordeaux and the city of Toulouse. Intelligence revealed defending—much less holding—Bordeaux would be difficult, mainly because of the lack of food in the area. Scouts had reported that Soult now marched east toward Toulouse and Wellington had told his officers minutes ago that that would be the site of their next battle, most likely in the next six to eight weeks.
Thank God it had been a British victory. Because of it, Owen actually believed the final stage of this lengthy war would soon unfold.
Back at his tent, he collapsed onto his cot, wishing one day he could have a hot bath and sleep once more in a feather bed, knowing the first would eventually happen and the latter never would, thanks to his career in the army. He pillowed his hands behind his head and let his thoughts drift far from today’s bloodshed. He wondered what Ev and Spence were up to on their new estates and hoped they appreciated the lives they now led.
Sensing the presence of someone entering the tent, he opened his eyes, seeing a young private bearing a stash of letters in his hands.
“Major, a letter for you,” the soldier said, handing over one piece of mail and then exiting the tent.
Owen looked down and let out a long breath of air, recognizing Mr. Sellers’ handwriting. The solicitor had written to him three additional letters since the first one Owen had burned six months ago. All asked the same thing—for Owen to return to London and manage the estate and his brother’s care. It seemed after the first few lines that Owen never bothered to finish reading the solicitor’s letters and subsequently burned them as he had the first. This one would be like all the others, he surmised, but opened it anyway.
Dear Major Hasbury –
I have yet to receive a reply from you and can only hope my letters have reached you, despite this being a time of war and the British army constantly on the march. Knowing your father frequently mentioned how stubborn you were, however, I have taken the liberty of writing to your commanding officer.
Owen cursed loudly. What right had Sellers to insert himself into Owen’s life? Anger simmering through him, his eyes returned to the page.
The physicians hold little hope for Lord Danbury’s recovery. He could be in his current state for days, months, even years. Though his physical wounds have now healed, the traumatic injury to his brain has still left the earl unconscious all these months. It is unknown if he will ever awaken, much less have his faculties when he does. Since Lord Danbury never wed and produced an heir, you—upon his death—would become the new earl. It is imperative for you to return and take charge of things. I have explained this in detail to your commanding officer.
I look forward to seeing you in the near future, Major Hasbury.
Owen wadded up the parchment, squeezing it tighter and tighter as his wrath grew. He was angry at Lawford and Mervyn for being careless enough to have been caught in the Stews at four in the morning. That, he had learned from Ev, who had written to Owen shortly after his return to England. Ev shared that Mervyn’s throat had been slashed in a robbery attempt and Lawford had also been attacked, barely surviving.
Ev told him the robbers had never been found. If they were, they would certainly hang for Mervyn’s murder. When Lawford did die of his injuries, that would be a second murder charge.
It finally sank in to Owen that he eventually would become the Earl of Danbury. Of course, Lawford could linger for years before Owen could claim the title. When Owen finally did, the estate might be in ruins if he didn’t act quickly. Much as he did not want to, it seemed he would have to leave the military. A formal separation would be necessary, which meant selling his commission. He did not know if that would be all he would have to live on or if the estate would be allowed to pay him a salary as he managed it. At least he would have a roof over his head and warm meals in his belly. Though he had never been destined for the earldom, he could not see his family’s name and Danbury ruined by his pettiness. He slipped the letter inside his coat and headed to Colonel Dixon’s tent, hoping his commanding officer had not yet seen Mr. Sellers’ letter.
He approached the tent and the sentry in front of it nodded curtly at him, holding the flap open. Entering, Owen saw Colonel Dixon at his makeshift desk. Correspondence was scattered across it and the man wore a deep frown as he looked up.
“Major Hasbury, I was just about to send for you. I have been reading a letter from a Mr. Sellers. It proved to be most interesting. He claims to have been writing to you since last spring.”
Owen knew the temper Dixon had and produced the letter from inside his jacket.
“I, too, just received a letter from Mr. Sellers. It is the first I have received, Colonel. You know with an army on the move, it can take a while for correspondence to catch up and be delivered. I am certain Mr. Sellers’ previous letters went astray but I can tell from the content of this one that my brother has been incapacitated by some injury.”
Colonel Dixon’s eyebrows arched and he said, “More than incapacitated. Mr. Sellers writes that there is no hope Lord Danbury will recover. If he ever regains consciousness, he is likely to be a vegetable. It is your duty, Major, to return to England and see to your family’s estate and your brother’s care. I will accept your letter of resignation and can help you in handling the sale of your commission.”
The colonel rose and offered Owen his hand, which he took and shook.
“You have been an exemplary leader, Major Hasbury. I hope that you will make for as good an earl as you have an officer in His Majesty’s army. Now, sit and write that resignation letter for me so that we might get things into motion.”
“We are so close to defeating the French, Colonel,” Owen pleaded. “I would ask that I be allowed to remain and participate in those few remaining battles and see us march victoriously in Paris. Surely, that will occur in the next couple of months.”
“Out of the question!” roared Dixon. “If you were to die in battle, what would become of your poor brother and the estate? Your duty to your country has been fulfilled by your outstanding service. Now, your duty is to your family and the title and estate which will one day be yours.” The commander’s eyes narrowed. “Is that understood, Major?”
Owen nodded, knowing his course had now been set. “I understand, Colonel.”
He took a seat and composed a brief letter of resignation and then handed it over. Colonel Dixon skimmed it and nodded brusquely.
“We will do our best to find you transportation in the next couple of days, Major Hasbury. In the meantime, think of the officers under you and which one might deserve a promotion to your position.”
“Thank you, Sir,” Owen said and exited the tent.
He traveled across the campsite a good distance until he reached the tent Win and Percy shared. Going inside, he found the two cousins playing cards.
“Owen,” Percy said jovially. “It is good we all survived today’s battle. But then again, you have always been the luckiest of the Second Sons.”
Win shot him a concerned look. “Something has happened since we saw you at Wellington’s staff meeting. What is it?”
“I have just spoken with Colonel Dixon and have submitted to him my letter of resignation. I will be leaving as soon as I can find a way back to England.”
“What?” both cousins cried in unison and Win added “Tells us everything.”
“You know when Ev received the letter telling him of his brother’s passing? Well, I received one shortly after that from Mr. Sellers, our family solicitor. My brother, Lawford, was with Mervyn. They were attacked in the Stews. Mervyn died immediately, as you know, making Ev the Duke of Camden. Lawford had severe injuries, including one to his head.”
“Has he died?” Win asked solemnly.
“No, he actually has recovered from his physical injuries, though I am not aware of what they were. It is his head injury that has not healed. He has been unconscious all these months and Mr. Sellers has sent me letters, pleading for me to come home and handle estate affairs on Lawford’s behalf, since he is unable to do so.”
He raked a hand through his hair. “I selfishly ignored these letters, preferring to stay on the battlefield and do my duty to king and country.”
“But you have a new duty now,” Percy said quietly. “One to your family—because at some point you will become the new earl.”
“Yes, you’re right. While Lawford has lingered, I have let down the tenants and others. Apparently, the estate is in disarray. Knowing Lawford, he was profligate in his spending. Who knows what I will find when I return? The thing is, it will be mine eventually. This year. Five years. Ten years from now. Whenever Lawford expires. If I am to save it for future generations, I must go home and take care of things now.”
“Who knew that another Second Son would be leaving our fold?” Win asked.
Percy said, “This calls for a drink.” He rummaged under his cot and produced a bottle and then found three tin cups. Pouring a generous amount into each, he dispersed them and lifted his high. “To Owen—and to Second Sons everywhere.”
“Hear, hear!” said Win
The three men clinked their tin cups together and downed the brandy.
In that moment, Owen wondered what would be waiting for him in England.
And when he would finally gain the title Earl of Danbury.
Danbury, Kent—June 1814
Owen opened his eyes. For a moment, he was confused as to where he was. Then he remembered that Strunk had moved his things into the earl’s suite yesterday.
He was officially the Earl of Danbury.
Actually, he had been Lord Danbury for a week now. Ever since Lawford’s death. His brother had never awakened from the coma he had been in ever since he and Mervyn had been attacked by footpads in London. No witnesses to the crime had ever stepped forward. The only reason he even knew there were two assailants is because when the two injured lords were found, it was the last thing Mervyn said before he died.
Owen had sat by Lawford’s bedside every night once he returned from the Continent, hoping his brother would awaken and be himself again, removing the heavy burden of responsibility that came with being a future peer of the realm from Owen. He hadn’t been raised to inherit the earldom and didn’t know the first thing about it. He certainly didn’t want to be in charge of the vast estate and holdings. More than anything, he longed to return to the army. It was all Owen had known his entire adult life.
Instead, he would remain in England and handle all the duties and obligations that came with being an earl. At least he wasn’t a duke as Ev had become. That would have been even more shocking.
He had kept his presence in England a secret from Ev and Spence, not writing to either of them during the time Lawford lived. Neither had he written to Percy or Win, knowing they had been far too busy to write him with the recent events ending the long war.
As he had predicted to Colonel Dixon, the allied coalition marched into Paris at the end of March. Bonaparte abdicated a week later and one final battle had occurred at Toulouse. The Bourbons had been restored to the French throne and Bonaparte exiled to Elba, his wife and son fleeing to Vienna. Europe would be in chaos until the upcoming congress of nations met and ironed out solutions to the many problems the Little Corporal had caused.
Owen had no idea where Win and Percy would be stationed. They had his address in Kent and he would wait to hear from them before he shared the news of Lawford’s death. In the meantime, he had written to Ev and Spence in London once Lawford passed. Owen had brought his brother back to Kent because after his meeting with the family solicitor, he learned his brother had neglected the estate for some time. If Owen were to right things, it would begin at Danfield and he needed to be there in order to supervise the necessary changes.
He sent a footman to Cliffside once he arrived there to inquire if Ev was home and had received a message from Arthur, Ev’s butler. It informed Owen that the Duke of Camden was in London for the Season. He couldn’t imagine his shy friend gallivanting about in Polite Society but determined that Ev, always conscious of duty to a fault, would have gone to look for a wife. Ev would want to provide a ducal heir, knowing it was his duty, and the Season would be full of young women eager to take on the title of duchess. He only hoped his friend wouldn’t be overwhelmed with all the attention he would receive.
Spence had already wed upon his return to England but Owen believed his friend and new wife would also be in town for the Season, partially to socialize and also to support Ev in his endeavors. Owen had dashed off quick notes to both his friends and sent them to London, along with the obituary to be placed in the newspapers announcing Lawford’s death. It was what Lawford would have wanted, the last way Owen could honor a brother he didn’t know and now never would. Nothing truly happened in the ton unless it was made public in the newspapers. That included births, marriages, and deaths.
Rising, Owen padded naked into the enormous dressing room, looking about to see the few clothes he possessed folded and sitting on the shelves. He had made do with purchasing a handful of items before he left London since he had no civilian clothes, only his military uniforms. There had been no need for them since he had left England years ago and spent his time on the march. Now, however, he was the Earl of Danbury and would be expected to dress as befit his station. He would wait until Ev returned next door after the Season and ask who his tailor was. Owen had no idea exactly what he would need to wear in Polite Society. At least here in the country, he could get away with a much smaller wardrobe.
Strunk suddenly appeared. “My lord, I have asked for you to ring for me when you rise each morning.”
The valet had made that request but Owen had forgotten. Strunk had been the one who cared for Lawford during the past year. With his master’s death, the servant had assumed he would become Owen’s valet. Like the title and the estate, Strunk was inherited. At least the man gave a good shave.
“I apologize, Strunk. It is taking me a while to get used to everything.”
“I understand, my lord. Life at Danfield must seem rather tame after what you have been through since your university days.”
“It is quite different. And not exactly a life I am yet comfortable in,” he admitted.
The valet placed the steaming bowl of water down. “Shall we shave you first and then dress you?”
Owen took a seat and closed his eyes, letting his thoughts drift as Strunk handled the shave. The quiet life of the country was getting on his nerves. At least his days were filled, making himself useful about the estate and then spending evenings trying to make sense of all the numbers in the ledgers. If he had a steward, the entire process would be much easier, but Danfield’s steward had retired shortly before Lawford was attacked in London. No replacement had been hired, much to Owen’s dismay. Sellers, the solicitor, seemed too timid to make even the slightest decision for the estate.
Because of that, Danfield was in disarray. He had taken it upon himself to act as the estate’s steward but he would still need to hire a good one in the near future. In the meantime, he was out and about every day on the land, meeting tenants, monitoring the fields, making notes of what he thought should be done. He dearly wished Ev would find a bride and return to Cliffside. Surely, in the time since his closest friend had been home, Ev had gleaned some ideas about how to run an estate. As the Duke of Camden, he must have a good half-dozen or more of them.
Once dressed, Owen proceeded to the breakfast room, one of his favorite places at Danfield. It was sunny and the perfect way for him to begin his morning. He entered and footmen immediately jumped into action, fetching his coffee and bringing his plate. He dug into the meat and eggs, dipping his toast into the yolk rather than smearing it with butter or jam.
A third footman entered and whispered something to Croft. The butler nodded and the footman stepped back.
Croft approached and said, “You have a visitor, my lord. The Duke of Camden has come to call.”
“He is here? Now?”
“Yes, my lord.”
“Show him in at once.”
The footman left, apparently to retrieve Ev. Excitement filled Owen. It had been the previous summer since he had seen his friend and he looked forward to their reunion.
Ev strode through the dining room and Owen rose to meet him. They threw their arms about one another, heartily clapping backs.
He stepped back. “Lord, it is good to see you, Ev. Come and sit. Coffee? Tea?”
“Nothing for me. I have already breakfasted.”
They returned to the table, Ev taking a seat on Owen’s right.
“Ah, so you are still keeping military hours and rising before the breaking of dawn?” he asked.
“I don’t suppose you can ever take the military out of the man,” Ev observed. “We received your note in London yesterday and happened to be making our way home the same day.”
“We? Have you already wed, Ev?”
His friend beamed. “I have. I cannot wait for you to meet my Addie. She is the best thing that has ever happened to me.”
“That was certainly fast work, you sly devil.”
“Addie is Tessa’s cousin,” Ev explained. “Spence and Tessa took me under their wings and have helped me with Cliffside and then making sure I had bit of town polish on me before the Season began. Addie had a bit of a reputation as a matchmaker and so I put myself in her hands.”
Owen whistled low. “I don’t know what to say.”
“Oh, I thought I had things all planned out. Addie insisted that I make a list of the attributes I was looking for in my duchess. She would use the list to guide her in making the appropriate introductions to ladies who displayed those specific qualities.”
“And recommend herself?” Owen asked, chuckling. “I suppose she recognized herself on your list.”
“Far from it. My list included the things I thought the Duchess of Camden should be. Dignified. Staid. Restrained.” Ev shook his head. “Addie is none of those things. She is vivacious and full of light and life.”
“Then how on earth did you wind up husband and wife?”
Ev shrugged. “I knew the moment we finished composing the list that what I thought I wanted—and what I truly wanted—were two very different things.”
“You wanted her,” Owen guessed.
“I wanted her. Very much.”
It was hard for Owen to picture his reserved friend with a bubbly, animated woman but he could already see that Addie was good for Ev.
“We wed rather quickly—and then I did not recognize the woman who was my duchess.”
Ev shook his head. “Because unbeknownst to me, Addie thought she had to act the part of my duchess. She tried to embody all the qualities on my list. It was a dismal failure, her trying to hide her natural exuberance and zest for life. Fortunately, we cleared up the brief misunderstanding and are now as happy as clams. You’ll see for yourself when you come to tea this afternoon.”
“I am coming for tea?”
“That is the purpose of my visit. To invite you to Cliffside so that we might catch up and Addie can meet you. You are the two most important people in my life, Owen. It is imperative you get to know one another, especially now that you are back from the war and will be living next door to us in the country.”
“I would be happy to come around for tea and meet your duchess,” Owen said.
Ev’s smile lit up his entire face. Owen couldn’t recall the last time he had seen Ev look so happy. Perhaps never.
“Don’t worry. Just as Spence and Tessa took care of me, Addie and I—along with Spence and Tessa—will make certain you are taken care of both now and next Season.”
“You think to introduce me around then?”
“Of course. Hopefully, you, too, will find a wife.”
Owen shook his head. “That is the last thing I need now, Ev. You know me. Of all the Second Sons, I am the least likely to want to settle down.”
“But you will need an heir,” his friend insisted.
“I know that. I am still trying to get used to being an earl, Ev. Being a husband is the last thing on my mind, quite frankly. And when I do go to London for the Season, I have no plans to wed for several years. I want to enjoy the society there. You know a pretty face has always been my weakness.”
When Ev’s face darkened, Owen added, “I will do my duty in time. A wife, however, is not a concern. Just because you seem besotted with your wife doesn’t mean I have to behave the same way.”
Ev frowned. “You don’t understand yet. Neither did I when Spence tried to tell me. Oh, I saw how in love he and Tessa were but I never dreamed of that for myself. Love wasn’t something I really believed in—until I met Addie.”
“Well, I am still part of that school of thought,” Owen declared. “I neither need nor want love, Ev. When the time comes, yes, I will do my duty. I will marry and hope my wife produces the needed heir and spare. But I am certain I will have a marriage as my parents did—as most members of the ton do. My wife and I will lead separate lives and be quite happy in doing so.”
Ev shook his head. “No, I thought the same and would have been miserable if I had wed anyone but Addie. You must open your heart, Owen, and let yourself find love. Sometimes where you least expect it. You are a good, honorable man. You will find a woman to love and keep your wedding vows. I know it.”
“Whatever you say, Ev.”
They talked a few more minutes about Danfield and his need to find a steward, with Ev promising to ask Painter, his own steward, if he knew of anyone who might serve in the same capacity for Owen. Ev left and Owen mentally rearranged his day in his head, making certain he would have time to return home and bathe before he appeared at Cliffside for tea with the new Duchess of Camden.
It had slightly surprised him when Spence wed so soon after returning to England but, then again, his longtime friend had always been the responsible type. His conversation with Ev shocked him, though. Ev had wed hastily and still showed signs of the bloom of being a newlywed. He seemed more open and relaxed than Owen had ever seen him and supposed the changes were thanks to his new wife.
Despite what Ev said, though, Owen had absolutely no plans to pursue a wife of his own when next Season arrived. It was as he said. He enjoyed the company of women. Now that he had returned to England and Polite Society, he would most certainly take advantage of that. He would flirt with all the pretty new girls making their come-outs and seek out the beautiful widows to satisfy his appetites. His father had never been faithful to his wife. Owen heard the rumors of Danbury’s infidelities throughout his school and university years. Why, the randy old goat had been seeing a woman half his age just before his death. Owen knew because his mother had written of it to him. As usual, most of her letters to her younger son voiced complaints about her husband or older son. He couldn’t remember a time when she had written him and spoken of only what she did or asked him about his time at war. Every piece of correspondence denigrated her husband and heir apparent.
Owen certainly didn’t need a wife, much less a harpy such as his mother. When the time came, he would wed a young, malleable girl making her come-out and do his duty by getting an heir off her. He had no desire to go about with stars in his eyes as Ev did or Spence seemed to do. It saddened him that his two closest friends, both having taken wives and doing the foolish thing of falling in love, would now have more in common with each other than with him. He hoped the two wives wouldn’t estrange him from Ev and Spence.
He would know more once he met the new Duchess of Camden and formed his opinion of her later today.
Owen arrived at Cliffside in his carriage. In the past, he would have ridden over on horseback but he was fresh from his bath and wanted to make a good impression on Ev’s bride.
Exiting the vehicle, he walked to the front door, a bouquet in his hand. Every woman he knew enjoyed receiving flowers. He hoped his gift would put him in Addie’s good graces.
Before he could knock at the door, it opened. A smiling Arthur stood there beaming at him.
“Good afternoon, Arthur,” he said pleasantly. “It has been a good while since I have seen you.”
“Come in, my lord,” the butler said. “It seems right having you back, along with His Grace. You boys were always together.”
“Causing trouble?” he joked.
Arthur grinned. “Perhaps just a bit, my lord. But what boy hasn’t in his youth?”
“How is Mrs. Arthur?”
“She is well and still Cliffside’s housekeeper. Hopefully, she and I will continue in service for several more years. Let me escort you upstairs to the drawing room.”
In the past, that never would have happened. Whenever Owen showed up on Cliffside’s doorstep, he had been admitted and then told where Ev was. He had headed there on his own. Of course, Ev was now a duke and Owen an earl. He supposed not only for Polite Society’s sake—but the servants’—that certain conventions must be observed.
“Wait here one moment, my lord,” Arthur said before he stepped into the drawing room for several seconds.
Owen heard his name being announced. Or rather the Earl of Danbury’s. It still struck him as odd that only a handful of people, close friends, would ever call him Owen again. For the majority, he would be Danbury or my lord.
He sailed through, his eyes immediately drawn to the woman who rose, Ev by her side. The new Duchess of Camden was a striking woman, with honey-blond hair and eyes the blue of a summer’s sky. She was slightly on the thin side, with an average bosom and nice height.
As he moved toward her, though, her eyes lit with excitement. No, mischief. He could see why his friend had been taken with her.
Claiming her hand, he raised it to his lips and kissed it. “I am Danbury, Your Grace.”
“Oh, we’ll have none of that,” she proclaimed. “You are to call me Adalyn and I shall call you Owen. It is only right to do so, seeing as how Ev looks upon you as a brother.”
He kept her hand in his and asked, “Not Addie?”
A low growl came from Ev’s throat and he said, “Give my duchess her hand back.”
Owen released it, chuckling.
“As for informality, I am all for it,” Ev proclaimed. “But she is my Addie—not yours. Not anyone’s but mine.” His hand slipped possessively about his wife’s waist.
“Don’t be such a grouch,” Adalyn gently chided.
“Well, you are my Addie,” Ev said.
And he kissed her.
Shock rippled through Owen. While Ev had been no stranger as far as the fairer sex went, Owen had never seen him display any kind of public affection in regard to a woman. The kiss wasn’t a light peck, either, but one that lingered for a moment. He worried now that the new duchess had somehow bewitched his friend. The old Ev would never have behaved so outrageously.
It was Adalyn who broke the kiss. Placing a hand lightly on her husband’s chest, she said, “We have a guest, Ev. We will finish this later.”
Turning to Owen, she said, “Won’t you please have a seat?”
Before he took the chair she indicated, he handed her the bouquet, saying, “These are for you. I hope you enjoy flowers.”
Adalyn accepted them, inhaling deeply. “Oh, they are lovely, Owen. Sweat peas are one of my favorite blooms.”
He sat as a maid rolled in a teacart. Adalyn gave the bouquet to the servant, asking that she find a vase for it and set it next to her bedside. For a few minutes, they were busy placing items on their plates as Adalyn poured out for them.
“Tell me about growing up at Danfield,” she urged. “What did you and Ev like to do?”
“Riding year-round. Swimming in the summers. Skimming rocks. Catching tadpoles. Roaming the woods between Danfield and Cliffside. Graduating from playing marbles to draughts to finally chess.”
She smiled. “Ev has promised to teach me to play chess.”
Adalyn looked to her husband, a look passing between them. A look that told Owen all that he needed to know.
This was a couple enamored with one another. Deeply in love. Two people who already shared a brief history together that they would build upon during the years as they started a family. A couple who would enjoy growing old together.
And for the first time in his life, Owen experienced jealousy.
He had always been athletic. Intelligent. Handsome. He did everything as well as or better than most. He had never envied anyone anything.
Maybe there was something, after all, to what Ev had spoken of. Yet the notion of love was so foreign to Owen, he couldn’t fathom it. Oh, he loved his brotherhood. The Second Sons were family to him. But true familial love with blood relatives? He had never known it. Danbury ignored him in favor of his heir. His mother treated him as a pesky fly to be shooed away. Lawford had barely acknowledged he had a brother.
As for women, Owen had never taken any of them seriously. Women had been good for one thing. Once he had pleasured them and taken his own pleasure from them, he discarded them quickly.
Yet a hunger now built within him.
He wanted what Ev and Adalyn had.
“Chess is an interesting game,” he finally managed to say, causing Adalyn to glance from her husband back to her guest. “If Ev doesn’t have the patience to teach you, I certainly can.”
A womanly smile appeared. “My husband will find the time to do so. When we are not doing other things.”
Owen had an excellent idea what those other things might be.
They talked some about the recent Season, which the couple had left early, as had Spence and Tessa. He asked about them and heard a few stories, including some about Analise, Spence’s daughter who was four months old and whom Spence seem to carry around whenever she was awake.
“You should see Spence with Analise,” Ev said. “I never saw a man take more to being a father.”
He wouldn’t know. His own father had barely acknowledged being a parent to him. Even with Lawford, his father had been stiff and formal. It was hard to imagine Spence, whom Owen had known for over two decades, being dotty over a child—much less a daughter.
“I look forward to seeing them at some point,” he said.
“I know!” Adalyn cried. “We will have a house party once the Season ends. That is in another two months or so. You will be more settled at Danfield, Owen, so you won’t have to worry about being away for a week or so. I will invite a select group you will feel comfortable with, naturally including Tessa and Spencer. That way, you will have already mingled a bit in Polite Society and be acquainted with some others by the time the next Season begins.”
“I don’t know,” he said stubbornly, not wanting Adalyn to start planning his life as she must do with Ev.
His friend laughed. “You might as well give in now, Owen. Else Addie will wear you down with kindness. Or determination. Or browbeat you. She’s actually quite good at all three. But she always gets her way.”
“Who is running this household?” he demanded, put out that his friend seemed so easily swayed by his duchess.
Ev’s mouth hardened. “We both do, Owen.” He took his wife’s hand and threaded his fingers through hers. “We are partners in every sense of the word. Addie is the intellectual equal of any man I have known. She doesn’t force me to do anything—and I would never do that to her.”
“It is all right, Ev,” Adalyn said, her words seeming to calm him. “Owen is merely you months ago when you first saw how Spencer was with Tessa. You had no idea of the deep and abiding love that could exist between a man and woman. In fact, you scoffed at it if I recall. Let Owen find his own way to love. Then he will understand.”
Ev looked appeased. Owen held in the snort he wished to issue but was wise enough not to do so in front of Adalyn, not wanting to distance himself from his old friend any more than he had.
“I know you want to dislike me,” she told him, as if she was reading his mind. “I understand. I fought what was happening between Ev and me. He did the same. But we were meant to be together. I hope you can accept that, Owen. I promise never to get in the way of your friendship with him. You are his oldest and dearest friend.”
Ev lifted their joined hands and kissed her fingers. “And it will stay that way. But you have to understand that I have changed, Owen. I am not the man I was. I am a better man. Because of this woman.”
Owen took in both their words, still amazed at the difference he was seeing in Ev—and not certain if he liked the changes or not. Still, Ev seemed incredibly happy and Owen knew Adalyn would have been quite the catch in Polite Society. The fact that his friend had claimed her for himself spoke volumes.
“Will you come to the house party if I plan it?” Adalyn asked, tears glistening in her eyes.
If there was one thing that weakened him, it was seeing a woman in tears.
“Yes, of course,” he said hastily. “It will give me a good chance to catch up with Spence and meet Tessa.”
“And other members of the ton,” Adalyn added.
“That, too. Most of my acquaintances are either still in the army or dead,” he said lightly.
“Thank you, Owen,” she said, rising. “I think I will give you two some time together while I start planning things.”
“Such as what?” he asked, curious.
“Who to invite. What activities to prepare. The kinds of food that will be served. Quite a bit goes into planning a house party.”
Adalyn said her goodbyes, leaving just the two of them together.
“She is definitely opinionated,” Owen said.
“By far the most opinionated woman I know,” Ev said cheerfully. “Also stubborn, strong-willed, and a bit spoiled. She was an only child and used to getting her own way.”
“I can see that.”
“Can you?” Ev asked.
“She certainly is a force of nature. Like a very spirited horse.”
“I shall never break her,” Ev said. “Instead, I will always celebrate her.”
“You have changed, Ev.”
“I have. I will never be comfortable claiming the center of attention but I am more comfortable in my own skin now, thanks to Addie. She is my very soul, Owen. The love between us is powerful.”
“I can see it. It is palpable,” he agreed.
“Spence and Tessa have the same kind of relationship. Not quite as volatile as mine and Addie’s can be.” He grinned. “But there is always the fun of making things right again between us.”
Owen burst into laughter. “I can tell that I will want to always be on Adalyn’s good side.”
“You are one of us,” his friend said. “Family. And Addie is fierce about family. She will defend you. Protect you.” He chuckled. “Plot for you.”
He frowned. “What do you mean?”
“And here I thought you to be so very clever, Lord Danbury.” Ev paused. “This house party is not merely to allow you time with Spencer and Tessa. Yes, it will allow that, as well as help introduce you to some influential people of the ton. But the real reason Addie has decide to hold it?
“She is going to help find you a wife.”
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