Fashioning the Duke (Suddenly a Duke Book 5)
A career army officer who never has known love . . .
The bastard daughter of an earl who owns a millinery shop . . .
A growing passion that could turn Polite Society on its ear . . .
Major-General Nigel Foxwell has spent his entire adult life at war. When he receives word that his much older half-brother has died, Fox inherits not only the title Duke of Abington—but he becomes the guardian to his two nieces who are on the verge of making their come-outs.
Miss Delaney Colebourne lost her beloved father and suffers the wrath of his heir. The new Lord Kinnison tells members of the ton if they frequent Delaney’s Designs, he and Lady Kinnison will give them the cut direct. His edict causes Delaney’s business to evaporate overnight.
A chance meeting at a solicitor’s office has Fox pleading with Delaney to help him manage his nieces’ come-outs. She agrees to design the young ladies’ wardrobes and has her former employees help her in making up gowns for the pair. An attraction grows—and Fox and Delaney act upon—but she refuses to marry him.
Will this newly-minted duke convince Delaney that she can maintain her independence and still love him—or will her mistrust of Polite Society prevent her from a lifetime of love?
Find the answer in Alexa Aston’s Fashioning the Duke, Book 5 in Suddenly a Duke.
Each book in the Suddenly a Duke series is a standalone story that can be enjoyed out of order and can be read for free with Kindle Unlimited.
Suddenly a Duke
Book 1 – Portrait of the Duke
Book 2 – Music for the Duke
Book 3 – Polishing the Duke
Book 4 – Designs on the Duke
Book 5 – Fashioning the Duke
Book 6 – Love Blooms with the Duke
Book 7 – Training the Duke
Book 8 – Investigating the Duke
Release date: July 20, 2023
Publisher: Dragonblade Publishing
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
Behind the book
My Suddenly a Duke series has strong, independent women of the Regency Era working for their living. Abby designs furniture, and I thoroughly enjoyed researching furniture trends and styles of this time period.
Fashioning the Duke (Suddenly a Duke Book 5)
Delaney Colebourne thanked her last customer and saw the woman out the door, turning the sign to indicate Delaney’s Designs was now closed for the day. She and Fanny, her salesclerk, went about the store, straightening things up, before Delaney bid the girl goodnight.
She went to the back of the store, where two milliners brought her designs to life. Once, she had toiled creating hats herself. For five long years, she had apprenticed with a top milliner in London. Those years were behind her now, thanks to the Earl of Kinnison, who had bought the building Delaney’s Designs was located in four years ago when she turned five and twenty. It had taken close to a year for her to outfit the building, make a stock of hats, and hire the right people. Now, the ton flocked to her millinery shop, raving about her original creations.
Not a one of them knew that Lord Kinnison was her father.
It wasn’t something she deliberately hid from her clients. The subject simply never came up. Ladies of Polite Society came in to find new hats and bonnets for themselves. While they admired Delaney’s work, it wasn’t as if they engaged in personal conversations with her. They simply talked to her about colors they liked or the preferences they held. Sometimes, they would ask her opinion, but they never spoke to her of anything other than hats.
Her father also did not keep it a secret, but it wasn’t something that came up in everyday conversation. Now, the people back in Devon knew. Lord Kinnison had immediately claimed paternity of Delaney, even insisting that her surname be Colebourne, as his was. Growing up, they had spent long hours together. Though he had a son and two other daughters, he devoted more time to Delaney than his three legitimate children combined, calling his children with the countess useless and spoiled. Their mother had died with the birth of their final child, the Kinnison heir, and everyone from relatives to friends to the servants had coddled and pampered the three motherless Colebourne children.
Delaney’s mother had been the wife of a dairy farmer, wed to him less than a year when he ran off with the local clergyman’s daughter. Neither was heard from again. It left her mother to run the farm herself. Lord Kinnison had come to visit with the woman and see if she needed any help, financially or otherwise. Sparks had flown at their meeting, and they had begun a long, torrid affair that continued until her mother’s death. Delaney was the product of their love.
The earl had still been wed to his shrewish wife when the affair began. After the countess’ death, Delaney’s mother had refused to marry Kinnison, despite his frequent pleading. Instead, she had continued running the dairy farm. Her only request was that he take time to get to know his out-of-wedlock daughter.
Delaney had worshipped Lord Kinnison as a child and still thought him the best man she had ever known. He had seen she had a good education and when her mother died unexpectedly, the earl brought Delaney to London, placing her in the care of the expert milliner, who began with the basics and over time taught Delaney the intricacies of millinery. Her father had encouraged her artistic bent, which had emerged at a young age. Delaney had been fascinated by clothes and sewed them for her dolls. Later, her interest had turned to hats. Her father recognized his bastard was bright, industrious, and creative and told her she would need all three to make her way in the world.
He had opened his estate’s ledgers and taught her about business, preparing her for the day when she would own and run her own shop. He marveled that she had good business sense, balanced with her creative side, telling her that was rare. It was Kinnison who had encouraged Delaney to be very selective about whom she took on as a client, telling her to always receive a personal recommendation before she accepted someone new.
Her father had set her up to apprentice with the best-known millinery in London. Delaney had spent five years under the woman’s tutelage, learning everything she could. When she believed the time was right, she went to her father and told him she was ready to strike out on her own. He encouraged her to follow her dreams, knowing the ton would not accept the bastard daughter of an earl. He told her to make the ton come to her.
And she had.
She told Ruth and Dilly, her milliners, that they could finish what they were working on tomorrow and locked up after them. Her business would soon be booming, with Polite Society returning to town for the upcoming Season, her busiest time of year. Delaney had not heard from her father in over a week, which was unusual. He spent most of his year in London now, and they would see each other often, dining in his home, going to a museum, or taking a ride through Hyde Park, either on horseback or in his phaeton. She decided she would leave now and call upon him so they might make plans to see one another in the coming days.
As she slipped her shawl about her, she heard a knock at the door. Knowing she had posted the closed sign, she wondered who might be calling. She claimed her reticule and went to the front, seeing Papa’s coachman at the door.
Opening it, she said, “I was just coming to see his lordship.”
The driver shook his head, looking at her strangely. Immediately, Delaney knew something was wrong.
“What is it?” she demanded.
“Lord Kinnison is seriously ill, Miss Colebourne. The doctor said it is apoplexy, and he hasn’t long to live. You must come now.”
Cold fear pooled in her belly. Apoplexy often rendered those it struck with paralysis. Victims rarely could speak. She blinked away the tears that formed in her eyes and locked the door to her store.
She accompanied the coachman to the earl’s carriage, dread filling her with every step. She wondered if the attack had occurred today or if several days had passed before she had been notified. Papa had told her that his son was coming to town. The heir apparent loathed Delaney, though the pair had never been introduced, and it wouldn’t surprise her if he had kept the news from her of their father’s illness.
“Breathe,” she told herself, closing her eyes and taking slow, deep breaths, trying to calm herself as they traveled to the Kinnison townhouse in Mayfair.
The carriage halted, and Delaney bounded from it, rushing to the front door and knocking.
The butler answered her knock and loudly said, “You are not welcomed here, Miss Colebourne.”
That was her first clue. He always called her Miss Delaney. She knew her half-brother must be lingering nearby.
Knowing now the servant was putting on an act, she said, “But I must see Papa. I beg you to please tell him that I am here.”
“Lord Kinnison is not home to you now—or ever,” the butler said ominously.
As he closed the door, however, he thrust a note at her. She took it and quickly opened it. It told her to go to the kitchen door, and she would be taken up the back staircase to see the earl.
Delaney hurried down the block and descended the stairs. Before she could knock, the door flew open and Cook latched on to her wrist, pulling her in from the cold.
“He’s in a bad way, Miss Delaney,” Cook said. “Go to him now.”
She did, passing servants in the kitchens and others in the hallway upstairs. All looked at her with sympathy.
Reaching her father’s rooms, she saw the butler waiting there for her.
“I apologize for not sending word sooner, Miss Delaney. The viscount constantly hovered. He wants his father dead.” The servant paused. “And now that the earl is near his end, the viscount is holding a party in the drawing room for his friends.” Disgust filled the servant’s face. “The lot of them are already drunk.”
Anger sizzled through her. She knew from stories Papa shared that her half-brother was lazy, thoughtless, and self-centered. He lived in rooms with a friend of his, visiting gaming hells nightly, spending most of his time drinking. Of her two half-sisters, one had died in childhood, and the other had wed a Scottish laird years ago. She had never returned to London after her marriage.
“Thank you for sending for me.”
“Of course, Miss Delaney. His lordship favors you for a reason. You are the only one of his children who ever loved him.”
She swallowed the lump in her throat and entered the room, crossing it and stepping inside Papa’s bedchamber. His valet sat next to the bed and now rose, nodding deferentially at her and leaving in order to give the two of them some privacy. Delaney went to the bed and took her father’s hand.
He smiled at her, an odd, crooked smile. She realized one side of his face must be paralyzed.
“Everything . . . worth it . . . because of you,” he rasped from one side of his mouth. “I loved your mother and . . . you, my sweet.” He paused. “Sorry couldn’t . . . make you . . . legitimate.”
Delaney knew the effort he must be expending to speak. She cradled his cheek. “Don’t speak, Papa. Rest. I know you loved Mama and me.”
He frowned. “Hated . . . wife. Forced to . . . wed her. You . . . taken care of.”
She tried to alleviate his worries. “I know you have taken care of me, Papa. You have already provided my shop’s building. My business is thriving. All because of your belief in me and my talents.”
“Not . . . enough,” he protested weakly, closing his eyes, his breathing becoming more labored.
She took the seat the valet had vacated and clasped his hand in both of hers, no words necessary. After some time, he opened his eyes again.
“You . . . in will. Inherited unentailed . . . estate. Solicitor has it. You . . . get . . . ten thousand pounds.”
Shock filled her. Ten thousand pounds was a huge fortune. She need never work again if this were true. And that did not include this estate he had mentioned.
“You know I love to work, Papa. I live to work.”
He grinned crookedly again, hope in his eyes. “Could . . . slow down. Marry.”
Delaney had seen what his marriage was like and determined long ago that marriage wasn’t for her. Her mother, though wed less than a year, had spoken of the beatings doled out to her by her husband before he ran away with his lover. Mama had constantly preached to Delaney never to wed—and especially never to wed a member of the ton. Despite Mama’s feelings for her lover, she despised the upper crust of society.
No, marriage was not for her. Besides, if she ever did wed, Delaney would lose her business, along with whatever Papa had left her in his will. English law made certain that a wife’s property and monies became that of her husband’s upon marriage. Delaney would not be stripped of everything she had worked so hard and long for, not to mention the other things Papa would leave her. She would keep her name and everything she owned. Marriage was for fools.
Delaney Colebourne was no fool.
Papa shut his eyes again and mumbled to himself before falling silent. His breathing grew more labored. Knowing nothing could be done for him, she remained at his side, holding his hand, stroking his hair, willing him to let go and be at peace.
When he passed, a smile graced his face. She sat another few minutes, his hand growing cold in hers, savoring these last few moments with him.
Finally, she rose, kissing his brow and leaving his bedchamber. Both his valet and the butler lingered in the corridor.
“He is gone now. He went peacefully.” She paused, her head high. “I will go out the front door this time.”
She descended the stairs, hearing the raucous noise coming from the drawing room, thinking it a pity that such a wonderful man hadn’t been loved by his other children, especially his heir.
It didn’t matter. Delaney would honor him. Mourn him. She would create what would rival any millinery shop in London. She knew she would not be allowed to attend his funeral or burial in Devon.
But she would hold him dear in her heart forevermore.
Major-General Nigel Foxwell listened as Wellington walked his senior staff through the next campaign.
“Thanks to Bonaparte’s invasion of Russia being such a dismal failure last summer, we finally have The Little Corporal on the run,” the commander said. “Intelligence reports reveal that French armies in eastern Europe will soon fall back to the Elbe.”
“What of Prussia?” someone asked.
Wellington smiled. “From all accounts, it looks as if Prussia intends to reenter the war as early as next month.” The commander paused, letting that information be digested before continuing. “It means Bonaparte will not be able to spare any fresh troops in the Peninsula because he must prepare for a counterattack in the east. In the meantime, I have been assured by the War Office that reinforcements will be shipped to me throughout the spring.”
For the first time in a long time, Fox smiled. Things had been going well, for the most part, for Wellington’s troops in Spain, especially after the Battle of Salamanca the previous year. With Bonaparte’s main forces tied up, it would be increasingly difficult for the French commanders in Spain to mount much of an offensive. That meant England and her allies would be on the move, striking north at Burgos.
Perhaps an end to this war might occur someday, after all.
War was all Fox had known as an adult. He had been an officer in His Majesty’s army for thirteen years now, a seasoned veteran. Wellington was by far his favorite of the commanders he had served under. If more commanders had Wellington’s guts and keen intelligence, they would have made mincemeat of the French years ago.
He wondered if peace would truly ever come. Even with Bonaparte on the defensive now, the wily Corsican might continue to fight for many years. Still, Fox believed the end was in sight, and Bonaparte’s days were numbered.
And then what?
He would always be a part of the army. He had risen through the ranks due to his intelligence and charisma. In battle, he was physical. Daring. Colorful. Known for taking calculated risks. His men followed him because of his leadership and their loyalty to him. It seemed when they engaged their enemy, a calm came over Fox, a supreme confidence that made him fearless. He knew his place and where he was headed.
If England were finally at peace, though, would he be happy?
Of course, no man truly enjoyed war. Fox certainly hated the killing and waste of men. Still, he had risen through the ranks and even if sent home if the war ended, he would command a garrison somewhere in England, keeping the mother country safe.
The meeting ended, and Fox left with a few of his fellow officers, heading first to the stewpots for something to fill their bellies. Then he went to the medical tent to visit the men under his command who were injured. One had already been discharged and told to report for duty again. Another was on the mend, and Fox gave him encouraging words. The final soldier, though, would not make it.
He went and took a seat beside Lieutenant Garrison. The young officer’s face was flushed with fever. He had a gut wound and had lasted two agonizing days.
Placing his hand on Garrison’s brow, Fox felt the fever burning up the man.
“Can I get you something to drink, Lieutenant?”
Garrison looked at him with eyes bright from the fever. “No. What would be the point, Major-General? It would be wasted on a dying man.”
He sat silently, not knowing what words of comfort to offer, the first time in a long time he hadn’t been able to provide solace to a soldier.
“Might I ask a favor?”
“Anything,” Fox said fervently.
“When this is over—this war—will you go see my widow, Major-General? She lives with her parents now, she and our little boy. He’s but two years old. I will die never having seen him.” Garrison choked on this last word.
Frankly, he thought it foolish that the man had thought to wed, much less have a child, with a war going on. Though he liked Garrison, who was personable and had shown true leadership qualities, the man should not have married before he became an officer. Yet he looked down at the feverish soldier, who wouldn’t last another day, and pity filled him.
“I will do as you ask, Lieutenant Garrison. I will tell both your wife and your son of your bravery on the battlefield and how you represented England well.”
Garrison shook his head, wincing with pain. “No. Don’t do that. All you need to say is that I love them. That they were in my thoughts always, especially at the very end.”
He stiffened. “If that is your wish, Lieutenant.”
The officer blew out a long breath. “It is. I have missed them every day I have been in Spain. Oh, I know it sounds mad, to love someone you have never seen. I do love my boy with all my heart. And my wife. More than words could ever convey. Please, let her know they were in my heart . . . always.”
Garrison choked, and his head dropped to the side. Fox touched two fingers to the pulse point in his neck.
Though he thought it absurd to convey a message of love, he would do it. He would also make certain the widow knew her husband was a brave man.
Rising, he motioned for a private and said, “Lieutenant Garrison has passed.”
“Thank you for letting me know, Major-General,” the soldier responded.
As Fox slowly returned to his tent, he tried to comprehend something such as the love the lieutenant had known for his wife and a son he had never seen. Fox had never known love.
He was the product of a second marriage. His father died when Fox was only two, and he had no recollection of the man. His mother became the Dowager Duchess of Abington, and he had grown up in the dower house at Crosshaven. Mama had spent most of her time in London, while Fox was left alone in Hertfordshire, brought up by nannies, the housekeeper, and a tutor before he had gone away to school. He only saw his mother sporadically before he left for his army training. She had remarried when he was twelve, and her husband did not want his new wife’s son from another man around. He had learned of her death five years ago in the only letter he had received since leaving England.
The new Duke of Abington, his half-brother, was twenty years Fox’s senior. He had seen Abington out and about at Crosshaven a few times during his childhood, but the duke never made a point to come see Fox. Abington also spent the bulk of his time in London, only returning to Crosshaven for a couple of weeks at Christmas each year. Fox learned from servants’ gossip that the duke had wed, and his duchess had given birth to two girls a year apart. After that, he left for the Continent with his regiment. Perhaps more children had come. He had no idea. All he knew was that his mother, in effect, abandoned him to the care of servants and teachers. He had raised himself. His half-brother had never bothered to meet him, much less extend friendship.
The idea of love was foreign to Fox. Yes, he did care for his men a great deal. He had also had friends at school and university, particularly the Earl of Morton, whom he had shared rooms with at Oxford. But love?
He knew nothing of it—and decided he was better off without it.
Returning to his tent, he went straight for his makeshift desk. He would write to Mrs. Garrison and her son and notify them of her husband’s death.
Fox found himself struggling as he wrote, which was odd. He had written hundreds of these types of letters over the years. Yet the thought of a weeping Mrs. Garrison and her toddler bothered him. He had lost his own father near the same age. He wondered if Mrs. Garrison would marry again. If she would tell her son stories of his father, or if Garrison would be forgotten and the new husband would become the father the boy knew.
Finally, he finished the letter and sealed it, glad to have completed the task. He would have it posted in the morning.
The flap to his tent opened. “Major-General?”
A young private entered, so young that Fox doubted he needed to shave. “Yes?”
The man produced a folded parchment. “A letter for you, sir.”
“Thank you,” he said brusquely, accepting it and watching the private leave before he turned his eyes to it.
Who could have written him?
He glanced at the front, seeing his name and rank. Clearly, someone from home knew of him. Perhaps it was from someone in the War Office.
Turning it over, he broke the seal and opened it to read.
Dear Major-General Foxwell –
My name is Hodgkins, and I am the Foxwell family solicitor. I am writing to inform you of the death of the Duke of Abington. His Grace died with only two daughters and no son. That means you have succeeded to the title.
I am aware of the fact that you and His Grace never met. He was a bit resentful when his father married again, having been close to his mother. He knew, however, that having had no legitimate sons, you would become his heir.
I know this news may come as a great shock to you, as you left England shortly after university and have never been in contact with His Grace. I do believe you should now be told that your army commission was purchased at His Grace’s request, because it was your father’s fondest wish for you to enter the military, something he always had longed to do.
My best advice is for you to sell out as quickly as possible and return to England to assume your title. You are now the guardian of your two nieces. They lost their parents a day apart, both from the pneumonia, and are a bit forlorn. They are, however, of an age to make their come-outs, so once they wed, they will no longer be your responsibility.
My condolences to you, Your Grace. Please come to my office in London, the address of which I have listed below. We can talk of Crosshaven and the girls, who are named Eliza and Grace, and make certain you understand your new responsibilities now that you are the Duke of Abington.
I look forward to meeting you and thank you for your service to our great country.
The page fluttered from Fox’s hand, falling to the floor.
He was a duke. A bloody duke. Responsible for two young women he had never met, ones grieving for their parents. How was he supposed to step in and make things right?
Fox’s head swirled with the amount of information Mr. Hodgkins had dumped upon him. He knew it would take several more meetings with the solicitor before he felt comfortable with everything he had been told today. One thing he knew—he was an incredibly wealthy man. He supposed dukes, being on the highest social rung of Polite Society, had vast fortunes. It was never something he had given a thought to before. Life in the dower house had been comfortable, and then he had gone away to some of the best schools in the land, as well as graduating from Oxford. He had no one to send his soldier’s pay home to, and so he had merely banked it, the army providing for all his needs in the meantime while he had been at war. But what he had saved over the years was a mere pittance compared to the funds now at his disposal.
“Do you have someone who can teach you the finer things about being part of the titled nobility, Your Grace?” Hodgkins asked. “Someone who could guide you as to finding the right tailor. How to acquire your membership at White’s. The manner in which you take your seat in the House of Lords.”
“I was close friends with the Earl of Morton at university, but we have not spoken since our time at Oxford,” he volunteered.
“Then I would do my best to get in contact with this Lord Morton. He, along with your valet, will be invaluable in easing your way into Polite Society.”
“I have no valet,” Fox replied.
“The previous duke did,” the solicitor pointed out. “Most likely, he has remained on the payroll, awaiting the new duke’s arrival.” Hodgkins paused. “As for your nieces, I suggest you allow them to make their come-outs as soon as possible and find husbands for the pair. I find girls to be rather bothersome.”
“Won’t they still be in mourning?” he asked. “After all, they lost both parents only this past November.”
Hodgkins shrugged. “True, but these circumstances are more than unusual. They are strangers to you and you to them. I would do my best to encourage them to step into society this year. As I mentioned earlier, they do have substantial dowries, which will attract a good number of suitors. If your friend, Lord Morton, has wed, it might be possible for his wife to sponsor the girls. Many things go into a young lady’s come-out Season. Things which you will have no knowledge of, Your Grace. If you could find a woman to help guide you through his process, it would be that much easier.”
Fox rose. “You have given me much food for thought, Hodgkins. I would like to digest it and return tomorrow for us to continue our discussion. What time is convenient?”
The solicitor called in his clerk, who said the duke would be welcome to return at two o’clock tomorrow afternoon.
“Then I will see you tomorrow at that time.”
“Until tomorrow, Your Grace,” Hodgkins said.
Fox left the solicitor’s office, the address of his townhouse on a slip of paper in his pocket. He had never visited London, much less this residence, but Hodgkins had said it was located in Mayfair. He asked the clerk how far Mayfair was and decided to walk to the square instead of traveling by hansom cab once he received directions to it. He told himself it was because he wanted to see a bit of the city. In actuality, he dreaded arriving there. He knew the names of his nieces. That information had been provided to him by Hodgkins. Eliza was the elder by a year at nine and ten. Grace was eight and ten. Hodgkins had never met either girl so he knew nothing else to share with Fox. It surprised him that he could have been in charge of hundreds of men, and yet the thought of being the guardian to two young ladies terrified him.
He had to stop twice for directions but finally arrived at his destination. Awe filled him as he gazed upon his house, which took up one entire side of the square. He could not begin to venture a guess as to how many rooms lay inside the townhouse, much less the number of servants it took to maintain it. Hodgkins had allowed Fox to see a list of every servant in his employ and their salary. It went on for so many pages that he lost count. He hoped he had an efficient butler and housekeeper. He would look at this as the army. He had been in charge of a large number of men and had to put his faith in the officers of a lesser rank under his command, hoping they would do their jobs and guide the men according to Fox’s orders. The same might be true of his London staff, with the butler and housekeeper doling out responsibilities and overall managing the servants.
At least that was what he hoped. He would not be someone to come in and begin dismissing servants left and right. He would observe how his household worked. If it ran smoothly, then he would keep with the status quo and make no changes.
As he approached the front door, his chief concern lay with his guardianship of Eliza and Grace. He would sound them out to see if they were comfortable making their come-outs this year or if they would prefer to remain in mourning and come out next year instead. He wondered if his half-brother had kept to the schedule he had set when he became the Duke of Abington and continued to only visit Crosshaven for the two weeks at Christmas. If so, the girls might prefer staying in town if they were more comfortable being here. He thought of so many choices and decisions that must be made in the coming days and weeks.
Fox rapped on the door. Immediately, a footman answered, and he realized the servant had been stationed next to the door.
“May I help you, sir?” the footman asked.
“I am the Duke of Abington,” he announced, causing the footman’s eyes to widen considerably.
“Please, come in, Your Grace,” was the response, spoken in a deferential manner.
The servant stepped back, and Fox entered what would be his new home. He gazed up at the crystal chandelier, which probably cost more than he had earned his entire time in the army. The foyer was wide and circular, containing bits of furniture for others to sit upon, most likely when they were waiting for their carriage to be readied. A large painting of his half-brother graced one wall, and Fox walked to it, studying it carefully.
The previous duke had been captured most likely soon after Fox had left for university, because this image was close to his last memories of his blood relative. The duke’s dark hair was tinged with a bit of gray at the temples.
Turning, he saw a tall, lean man with an air of authority about him and knew the servant to be his butler.
“I am Abington,” he said, knowing the servant would take things in hand.
The butler bowed. “Welcome home, Your Grace. I am Driskell, your butler. My wife, Mrs. Driskell, serves as your housekeeper here in town.” The butler paused. “We were both in the household as a footman and maid when your father was alive, God rest his soul. We are happy to have you here.”
“I would like to meet with you and Mrs. Driskell later. First, I want to speak with my nieces. Are they at home?”
“Yes, Your Grace. Lady Eliza and Lady Grace are in the music room finishing their weekly pianoforte lesson. If you wish, I can take you to the drawing room, and you can meet with them there.”
“If you will follow me, Your Grace.”
It still sounded foreign to his ears, being called Your Grace by everyone. He supposed just as he would never be known as Major-General Foxwell ever again, no one would call him Fox. The thought saddened him. He had known his place in the world for so many years, as an officer in His Majesty’s army. Now, it was as if he were plucked from the army and dropped into a foreign country, where he knew neither the language nor the rules. He would need to seek out Morton as soon as possible. If his old friend was nowhere to be found, Fox would truly be lost.
Entering the drawing room, Driskell took his leave, allowing Fox to make a circle about the room, taking in its furnishings and artwork. Once again, it astounded him how wealthy he was and how this palatial townhouse was to be his home. He would ask his housekeeper to give him a tour of the place in order to familiarize himself with it, though he suspected he still might lose his way among the many corridors a time or two.
He sat, strumming his fingers against his thigh, a gesture of both impatience and unsureness. He forced his fingers to still, not recalling the last time he had experienced any type of anxiety. Perhaps it had been years ago when he had entered battle for the first time. That occurred so long ago that he could barely remember the occasion. He told himself that he was not confronting an enemy in the next few minutes. His nieces were family and young women, most likely sheltered since they had yet to step out into Polite Society. He had no reason to be nervous around them. He was in charge.
Yet Fox felt so very unsure of himself in this moment.
The door opened, and Driskell appeared again. “Lady Eliza and Lady Grace, Your Grace,” the butler announced.
Fox rose, standing tall, his hands clasped behind his back as two nearly-identical young women came toward him. Both were exactly the same height, a couple of inches over five feet. Each was petite, with delicate features. Most likely, they shared a wardrobe since they were the same size. Even their faces looked remarkably similar. The only way they could be told apart was by their hair color. One was blond, and one had light brown hair.
He did not know whether he should embrace them or not and decided against exercising such familiarity with young ladies who, in effect, were strangers.
“Come closer,” he urged, and the pair stopped a few feet in front of him, curtseying. Both looked at him with curious, dark brown eyes.
“I will not pretend this is not an awkward situation because it is,” he began. “I have always been frank with the officers and men under my command. I will be the same with you. I won’t embrace you today because we are not familiar with one another, but I am happy to make your acquaintance. Come and have a seat.”
He returned to the chair in which he had been sitting. His nieces took seats together on a settee opposite him.
“I am Major-General Nigel Foxwell.” He smiled wryly. “Or at least I was. I have now assumed your father’s title of Duke of Abington. I was his younger, half-brother. After his mother passed, our father wed my mother. Twenty years separated us. When I was born, your father was away at university. When our father died, I was but two years of age.”
He paused a moment, letting this sink in. Fox doubted Abington had ever mentioned him to his daughters, especially since his death had been an unexpected one.
Continuing, he said, “My mother and I moved out of the main house at Crosshaven and lived in the dower house on the estate. I never met your father in all these years. I knew he had wed and had two children by the time I went off to war, but there was never any contact between us.”
The darker-haired girl said, “Papa never mentioned you to us, but Mama did. She tried desperately to provide an heir and kept losing babe after babe.”
“Don’t say that,” the blond one chided. “He doesn’t need to know that.”
The other girl snorted. “Well, at least it tells him why he is the heir. Mama had no son. And Papa spent most of his time furious at Mama. Or us.” She turned to Fox and boldly said, “I am Lady Eliza, the older of us. I am nine and ten and ready to make my come-out this Season.”
The blond frowned. “I am Lady Grace, and I think it is a terrible idea. We should still be in mourning,” she declared.
Fascinated, Fox studied them as they continued to argue.
“Why should we mourn any longer?” Eliza asked. “It has already been four months. By the time the Season starts, it will be five. It is not as though either of them would have mourned us if we turned up dead, Grace.”
“You don’t know that,” Grace retorted. “Why, I am certain Mama would have missed us.”
“Really?” Eliza shook her head. “Mama rarely saw us. When she did, she would fuss like mad over us and then return to not paying us a bit of attention. And Papa ignored us altogether. He never liked us.” She glanced to Fox. “Because we were girls,” she explained. “Papa had no use for females. Daughters couldn’t be heirs, and Mama couldn’t produce an heir. Therefore, we were worthless in his eyes. Well, I plan to get out of this house as soon as possible and find a husband. I will wed a man who is everything Papa wasn’t. Kind. Thoughtful. Generous.”
“Oh, hush, Eliza. What do you think Abington thinks of us, airing our personal lives in front of him? He is a stranger, after all.”
“Hmm. He may be a stranger, but he is family,” Eliza noted, staring at Fox. “You probably don’t care about how we were treated by our parents. You will probably ignore us just as Papa did.”
“On the contrary, I take my duties as your guardian quite seriously, Eliza.”
“That’s Lady Eliza,” she snapped.
He frowned deeply at her until her angry expression turned meek. “I wish to be a good guardian to you girls. I do not want to be a parent to you, but I would hope to be an older friend. Someone who might guide you into the next stage of your lives.”
“So, you do want us to make our come-outs?” Grace asked, uncertainty in her voice.
“I want you to do as you wish,” he stated. “If Lady Eliza believes she has mourned your parents long enough and wants to make her come-out this Season, I am happy to make that happen. If you, Lady Grace, choose to wait until next spring, you may do so. I will not force either of you into doing something you are uncomfortable with.”
His older niece brightened. “I rather like that. You may call me Eliza, Abington.”
“Perhaps you might call me Uncle Fox,” he suggested, hating the thought of these two forevermore calling him by his title.
“Uncle Fox,” Eliza mused. “I am not sure we can.”
“Why not?” he asked.
“Well, Mama always called Papa Abington,” she told him. “I never once heard her call him by his Christian name.” She laughed. “I don’t even know what it was. Even Papa’s friends addressed him as Abington.”
“We are family,” he said. “Foxwell may be our surname, but I have always gone by Fox. And I am your uncle.”
“You truly do not mind us calling you Uncle Fox?” Grace asked, looking unsure of herself.
“I would prefer it, truth be told,” he confessed. “I never thought to be the duke. I assumed your parents had other children after I went away to war. Now that I am the Duke of Abington, it would be nice if my family could be a little more casual in their address.”
Eliza flashed a triumphant smile. “I certainly will call you Uncle Fox. After all, you have told us to do so. A duke always gets his way in everything.”
She shrugged. “That is what Papa always said.” She paused. “So, Uncle Fox, may I be allowed to make my come-out this Season?”
“I will be delighted to help you do so, Eliza.” He turned to Grace. “You do not have to make a decision today, Grace.”
“Oh, but she does,” Eliza proclaimed. “We must book a decent modiste at once. An entire wardrobe must be made up for the Season. If we do not start soon, it will be too late.”
He frowned. “What goes into this wardrobe?”
“Oh, you must not worry about costs. You are quite wealthy now, Uncle Fox. Yes, it takes piles of money for a girl to make her come-out—but you are a duke, and we are daughters of a duke. All of Polite Society will look to us as the girls in our come-out class to set the pace. There will be balls and routs. Picnics and garden parties. Dinner parties and nights at the theatre and opera. We cannot repeat a single gown. We must wear something new to each social affair or be branded pariahs.”
Fox thought it ridiculous to wear a gown only once, but he could recall his own mother saying something of the same nature when he was young.
Eliza went on to explain how there would be fifty or sixty balls held that Season and the time it would take to have a wardrobe made up for each of them.
“So, you can see why Grace must decide quickly, Uncle Fox.” She turned to her sister. “Really, Grace. You are of age. Most girls make their come-outs at your age or even younger. I am the one who had to wait because Mama wanted us to be brought out together.” She looked to Fox. “Mama had grand visions of a double wedding at St. George’s for the two of us.”
“Do you wish for a double wedding?” he wondered aloud.
“I want a wedding with all of Polite Society in attendance,” Eliza said dramatically. “At St. George’s, of course, because it is the only place a wedding should be held.”
He looked to Grace. “What of you, Grace?”
“I would prefer something small. In the garden. With only a few in attendance. A wedding is an intimate affair.”
Eliza laughed. “That’s because you want to fall in love with your groom. No one in the ton falls in love. That is what lovers are for. You have your heir and spare, and then you take a lover.”
“Eliza!” Grace chided. “You are talking out of turn.”
Her sister sniffed. “I listen. I hear things. And I know that is the way of the ton. I do not care anything about love. I only want to wed a man who is extremely rich. An earl or a higher rank. He will buy me lovely clothes and treat me exquisitely.”
Fox saw Eliza was going to be a handful. He would need to look for a strong man who could tame her and encourage a match between the pair. As for Grace, she seemed gentle and kind.
“What will it be, Grace?” he asked softly. “Do you wish to follow your sister into becoming a part of Polite Society? Or would you rather continue your mourning and make your debut next Season?”
She worried her lip and then said, “I do not wish to delay, Uncle Fox. I would rather have Eliza by my side as I make my debut. I only ask that you be patient with me.” She hesitated. “I would like to find love if I could. It might take more than one Season to find the right man.”
“Then do as you wish, Grace. Make your come-out next month and take your time. Committing a lifetime to another person in marriage is something you should not rush into. If you find the right man, marry him. If you do not, you can have a go at it the next year.”
“We have large dowries, Uncle Fox,” Eliza said matter-of-factly. “You will most likely need to get to know the men who court us. That means you must accompany us to the events this upcoming Season.” She paused, looking at him from head to toe. “You will have to see a tailor. A duke cannot go about wearing an officer’s uniform. Besides, you aren’t an officer anymore. You are a duke.”
He smiled. “I will not embarrass you, Eliza. I will see to having a wardrobe suited for a duke made up.”
“You are very different from what I thought you would be,” she told him. “You actually speak to us as if we are people.”
“Well, you are,” he agreed.
“Our parents ignored us, Uncle Fox,” Eliza continued. “I have told you as much. Grace and I have been on our own a good deal of our lives. Yes, we had a governess who was with us and taught us to read and write. We take music and dance lessons. But we have not been around many others, especially adults. It is a bit refreshing to have you converse with us as you are.”
“You really seem to listen,” Grace added. “I do not think Mama or Papa ever heard a word we said.”
Pity filled him. These girls had very different dispositions, but they had been sadly neglected by their parents, much as he had been by his own mother.
“I will do my best to always listen to what you have to say because you are family and important to me. Give me a day to get my bearings, and then we will see about finding a modiste for you.”
“And a milliner,” Eliza quickly added. “Hats are incredibly important to a lady’s ensemble.”
“We won’t neglect a thing,” Fox promised. “You will have your gowns and hats. Gloves and slippers. I will probably have to chase off the gentlemen that swarm about you because there will be so many of them.”
His remarks brought a delighted burst of laughter from Eliza and a sweet smile from Grace.
“Shall we call for tea, Uncle Fox?” Grace asked. “We should get to know one another some.”
“Tea sounds wonderful. Ring for it if you would, Grace.”
Twenty minutes later, the teacart arrived with all kinds of sandwiches and sweets and plenty of strong, hot tea. Fox found himself revealing things about himself as a boy and talking about the army in generalities, all as he learned more about his nieces. He actually began to look forward to attending the Season as their escort and helping them decide upon their future mates.
Until Grace pointed something out which Fox hadn’t given a thought to.
“You, too, will be looking for a marriage partner, Uncle Fox. After all, you will need a duchess who can provide you with an heir.” She smiled apologetically. “You are rather old, so you should get started on this soon.”
“I am only four and thirty and in the prime of my life, thank you very much.”
Grace’s words got him to thinking, though. He would need an heir—and that meant he needed a wife.
Oh, bloody hell.
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