Investigating the Duke
A woman who is making her way as a Bow Street runner . . .
An investigation that leads them to the truth—and each other . . .
Jasper Lincoln is happy tending to his congregation when news arrives of his brother’s death in battle. Jasper’s father, ailing for several months, slips away, unable to bear the news. And on that same night, Jasper’s brother, Lord Sutton, drunkenly falls down the stairs, dying instantly, making Jasper a sudden duke. He harbors lingering suspicions about these two deaths and seeks help at Bow Street.
Orphan Shelby Slade grew up on the cruel streets of London, surviving as a pickpocket until being rescued by Mr. Franklin, head of the Bow Street runners. Shelby finds her purpose, becoming the only female agent at Bow Street. She is assigned to the Duke of Edgehaven’s case and fights the growing attraction she feels for the solemn clergyman-turned-duke.
As her inquiry proceeds, Shelby believes the previous duke was poisoned with arsenic and that the new duke’s niece, who has suddenly turned mute, may have witnessed her own father’s murder. Together, with Edgehaven’s help, she searches for answers, wanting to uncover the truth regarding both deaths.
Will Shelby’s investigation lead to discovering the killer’s identity—and will she live long enough to claim happiness with Jasper?
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: November 21, 2023
Publisher: Dragonblade Publishing, Inc.
Print pages: 276
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
Behind the book
This is the final romance in my Suddenly a Duke series. Readers have met Bow Street runner Shelby Slade in a few previous books in the series. I was eager to give Shelby her own HEA--and with a duke, no less!
Investigating the Duke
London—Christmas Day, 1798
Shelby Slade awoke with a start, on edge, as always. Then she took a deep breath and forced herself to relax. She would not be in a rush today. It was Christmas.
Her twelfth birthday.
For some reason, it was important to her that she keep up with the date. Four years ago, she hadn’t a clue she would live to be this age.
She shifted, lying back against the sack of flour she used as a pillow in the storeroom of Griffin’s Inn & Tavern. Not that the owner knew she did so. She had learned to pick a lock at a young age and liked the location of this place. Mr. Griffin kept the storeroom swept and clean, though it was a bit of a hodgepodge. It gave her almost a sense of permanency, coming here each night to bed down. Or actually, in the wee hours of the morning. She would linger in the alley behind the tavern and wait until the Griffins went up to bed, some of their customers doing the same, having taken rooms at the inn, while others left for their own homes.
Then Shelby would ease open the lock with her picks and hide in the storeroom, pulling out the small blanket she kept hidden, and stretching out to sleep. Griffin kept the door to this room locked at all times, and she felt it gave her an added bit of protection. She never felt safe on the streets and certainly could never let down her guard. For a few hours, though, the storeroom allowed her to relax and rest in peace.
For some reason, she wanted to see Mum today. Not that her mother had ever cared to see her only child. Mum always had chosen a man over her daughter any day. Shelby had no idea who her father was, only that he had up and left when he found out a babe was on the way. She had grown up with a string of men coming and going in their one-room flat. She had learned to keep out of the way and stay quiet, not drawing attention to herself.
That had changed shortly after she turned six. The latest in the parade of men had noticed her presence and let her and her mother know he was not fond of children. He began shoving her out the door and locking it, telling her not to come back for a few days. It was when she first started becoming street smart, having to learn how to survive the best she could. She learned how to beg. How to live on scraps of food tossed out by others. How to keep herself small so that others on the streets did not notice her.
But all the time, she was learning.
At seven, a different man had replaced the one who had tossed her out, and Shelby spent a short time at home. He had seemed nice, even giving her a peppermint once, making her feel as if she might come home for good and they could become a family.
How wrong she had been.
His smiles only hid the malice in his heart. He soon began beating Mum and then Shelby herself for the slightest infraction. Once again, she fled to the streets, rarely coming home. When she did, she would linger outside, waiting for him to leave before she went in for a quick visit with Mum. Her mother usually sported a black eye or two, not to mention bruises and even broken bones. Mum was nervous whenever Shelby appeared, always worried her daughter would be caught there—and both of them would be punished.
Finally, she stopped coming around, realizing Mum dreaded those visits.
She learned more about survival on the streets of London. Which churches gave out meals and clothing. How to fight with her feet and fists. The ways to choose a mark and pick a pocket. Then one day she heard that her mum had taken up with someone new, her former lover having died in a tavern fight. Once again, Shelby ventured a visit home and found the new man to be handsome and kind. He encouraged her to come home for good, telling her that he had always wanted a daughter, and they could be a family. She decided to test things out, trying her best to live a normal life of an eight-year-old. She even got a job selling flowers, coming home and giving money to him.
But not all of it. Her instincts told her to hold some back in case some emergency happened. In case he wasn’t the good man he seemed to be.
And she was right.
Shelby had heard of predators like him on the streets and how to avoid them, but she had never realized they groomed their victims with kindness and attention. She let her guard down around him and almost paid for it with her life.
He did what she guessed others like him did. Lulled both her and her mother into a false sense of security. One day, Shelby came home, handing over her coins as always. This time, though, she had seen a glint in his eyes which had been missing before. It was as if he had become a totally different person, one she had never met. One she was afraid of. One she knew would do her harm.
She had asked where her mum was, worried that she didn’t see her. The man told her Mum was feeling poorly and had gone to the apothecary for something to soothe her stomach.
Something in his tone didn’t ring right with Shelby. She told him she would go in search of her mother. Then she made her biggest mistake, turning her back on him so she could make it to the door. She was reaching for the doorknob when he latched on to her elbow, his grip like an iron vise. Then he had slapped her so hard that she saw stars dance before her eyes. As she lay on the ground, too stunned to move and yet cursing inwardly for being so foolish, he had lifted her and placed her on the pallet she slept on each night.
His hands began touching her body, skimming over her chest. He had held her down, using his hands and body to keep her against the ground, and kissed her. At the same time, his hand went under her dress, and his fingers skimmed her thigh. Even now, she could feel the surge of panic she had felt that day. When he had plunged his tongue inside her mouth, she had come to her senses and bitten down hard on it, all the while reaching for the sharp blade she had carried in her boot. One she had taken off a dead man in an alley. He hadn’t needed it anymore—and Shelby had known it would come in handy one day.
When the man shrieked in pain and jerked to a sitting position, still straddling her, she saw anger flashed in his eyes. He raised his hand to slap her again—and she slashed him across the throat.
Shelby would never forget the look of astonishment on his face and the line that turned red.
Pushing hard on his chest, she scrambled from beneath him as he started to pitch forward. It was only then she saw the lump in the corner, realizing it was Mum. Rushing to her, she blocked out the gurgling noises coming from the other side of the room as her attacker drowned in his own blood.
Her mother lay curled in a tight ball, beaten savagely, her face almost unrecognizable as a mass of bruises developed. One eye was swollen entirely shut. Mum opened her mouth and Shelby saw her teeth had been shattered. But she had spoken. Mum had whispered one word.
“Run . . .”
Shelby had done just that. She did not want to hang for murder. She knew the authorities would neither listen nor care about what this man had done to a defenseless woman and her young daughter. She also knew she could never come back here again. She had gently kissed Mum’s brow and then returned to the body. He lay unmoving, face down in a spreading pool of blood. She wiped her knife on his shirt and then left.
That had been four years ago. Shelby never spoke to her mother again. Oh, sometimes, she hid in the shadows and watched Mum come and go, her looks fading even as a new group of men moved in and out. Finally, two years ago, she learned Mum was gone. In that time, Shelby had honed her street skills. She could filch items with the best of any of the pickpockets working in London. She also could clean up nicely and beg in the better parts of town. She stole when she had to, be it food or clothing. She had tried working for her living, first as a chimney sweep, climbing up flues to sweep out soot and put out fires. It was filthy, exhausting work. Then she had gone to work in a mill, quickly giving up on that after seeing three children close to her age losing limbs in accidents. Two had died in agony, while the other had lost his arm and been fired. Besides the filthy conditions and meager pay, Shelby hated the confines, spending sixteen to eighteen hours a day in cramped conditions. She would rather be on her own, making her own way, answering to no one but herself.
Snuggling back against the flour sack, she raised the blanket to her chin, relishing the thought of not having to be gone immediately. Usually, she was out of the storeroom by six o’clock each morning, folding the thin blanket and hiding it behind a barrel. With today being Christmas Day, however, she had time to luxuriate. Over the years, Shelby had learned the Griffins would not be serving anyone until mid-morning. She supposed they went to church before returning to the tavern and feeding their guests.
Rising an hour later, she stifled a giggle, feeling as if she were a lady of leisure for one day. She left the storeroom, relocking the door behind her as always, and headed to church herself. She had learned over the years which ones gave out things to the poor, whether it be a hot meal or a warm coat. This time, she got both, handing over the coat she wore, which was getting too small for her, and slipping into a new one. It was slightly too large, but she didn’t care. It was clean, and she would be able to wear it this winter and probably next, as well.
Her belly full now, she walked a long way to a field where the poor were buried, ready to visit with Mum now. Her mother’s grave did not have a headstone, but Shelby counted the graves and stopped when she found the correct one. Sitting on the ground, she placed her palm flat. This was the closest she would ever be to Mum.
“I just wanted to come and say hello,” she said softly. “Happy Christmas, Mum. I miss you.”
Shelby sat for an hour beside the grave, telling her mother what she had been up to since their last visit. Her legs grew cramped sitting for so long, and she finally rose.
“I’ll be back, Mum. Someday. I don’t know when, but you haven’t seen the last of me.”
She left the graveyard and went to Hyde Park, her favorite of the parks in London. It was where the toffs’ grooms exercised horses each morning in Rotten Row. She loved watching them put the beautiful beasts through their paces and told herself that one day she would be rich enough to own one. She would ride it everywhere, handing out coins to the poor, and people would think she was a great lady. Today the park was empty, thanks to the holiday.
Wandering down to the Serpentine, Shelby sat on the bank, pulling a bag of leftover chestnuts from her pocket. She ate them slowly, thinking she would take a day off from working the streets. Not that many would be out now. The day had grown colder and even more bleak, the wind biting, stinging her cheeks and turning her fingers numb. Others would be in their homes, celebrating the holiday with their loved ones, so there would be no pockets to pick or strangers to beg for money.
That was all right because three days ago, she had picked the pocket of a fairly ordinary-looking gentleman, only to find she had struck a windfall. What she had earned from that single outing would keep her comfortable for a month or more. Shelby had even gone to a bathhouse and taken a long, hot bath, washing her extra set of clothes as well as herself. The first thing she had learned on the streets was to dress as a young boy. Females were seen as weak, no matter what their age, and she always wore a shirt, vest, and trousers. She kept her hair short, pulling a cap low on her face to hide her feminine features.
Her only problem was she now had breasts. At twelve, she had grown long and lean, stronger than other girls and even boys her age. She had heard talk about girls bleeding and had spent a coin a month ago in a brothel, asking for information about that. The tart who had talked to her explained what her monthly courses would be like and how to handle them. Shelby dreaded the day when they came. It was already hard to pass herself off as a boy this past year. That situation would only complicate her life.
She rose and left the park, going back to the streets of Mayfair and wandering them for a few hours, looking at all the pretty houses. Most were unlit since toffs liked to go to the country this time of year. Still, it helped to keep moving since the temperature had dropped even further, the brisk wind chilling her to the bone.
When she reached a street that had some foot traffic on it this late afternoon, she instinctively began looking for a mark. Shelby saw one coming. He was about thirty, well-dressed but not conspicuously so. Looking straight ahead, she timed it perfectly, bumping into him, mumbling, “’Scuse me, sir,” and then walking away. A lesson she had learned was not to rush from a mark because it left them suspicious. Neither did she tarry, though, merely moving at an easy gait.
She walked a few blocks and then turned into an alley to see the pocket watch she had taken, hoping it would be a piece which would fetch a pretty price. As she viewed it, though, she sensed another presence in the alley. The hairs on the back of her neck stood up, and she jammed the watch into her coat pocket and whirled.
It was her mark. The one she had bumped into blocks ago. He must have followed her. Blast! She thought she had warmed her fingers enough from the cold to make a move. Obviously, he had felt something and given her chase. Cursing inwardly at her carelessness, she was disappointed that her instincts had let her down. Or her sheer laziness. She knew better. To always be on her toes and alert to everything about her.
“I am not going to hurt you,” he said, holding his hands away from his sides, palms out, indicating to her he held no weapon.
Her survival instincts hummed now. Just because a weapon wasn’t visible didn’t mean this man didn’t possess one. She had underestimated him. He might even be someone who moved as quickly as she did.
Her eyes darted about, looking for a way to escape.
“I said I wouldn’t hurt you, and I mean it,” he said convincingly, “but you must give back my pocket watch. It belonged to my father—and his before him. It is my most prized possession.”
Still, she hesitated. Doing so would admit guilt. He might hit her. Knock her down. Grab her by the hair and drag her off to where she’d be thrown in prison. Or worse.
“I don’t know what—”
“Oh, do me the courtesy of telling me the truth, young lady. I will accept a lot from someone. But not lies. If you are worried I will go to the authorities, rest assured that I won’t. Simply give me the watch. It is mine. Not yours. I will have it and have it now,” he said firmly.
Reluctantly, Shelby pulled the watch from her oversized pocket and tossed it at him. She had learned never to hand something to a stranger because he could lock on to your wrist. Bad things could happen. They had to her. It was a lesson Shelby would not forget.
He nodded approvingly. “Thank you. Now, would you like to come home with me and have a hot meal?”
His words surprised her—and she was rarely surprised.
“I am not someone who wishes to rob or hurt you. I have seen you before on the streets. How long have you lived on them?”
Something about his kind, brown eyes made her want to tell the truth.
“Six years, sir, though the first two I bounced between home and the streets.”
“So, four solid years—plus a little of learning how to care for yourself before that. Do you have parents?”
Again, it shocked her that she wanted to give him the truth. Her truth.
“No, sir. My father left before I was even born. My mum . . . died two years ago.”
“And you have no one else now? No brothers or sisters. No aunts or uncles who might take you in?”
She shook her head.
“I know you have no reason to trust me, but I am going to ask you to come home with me. For that hot meal, even if it is all you wish. If you want more from my wife and me, we can give it to you.”
Shelby shook her head violently and began backing away from him. “Stay away.” She bent and pulled her blade from her boot, the boots she had taken off a dead man a month ago and stuffed with newspapers so they might fit better.
“Stay away,” she repeated, the warning low and deadly. “Don’t think I won’t use it.”
He nodded, almost in approval. “I’ve no doubt you can do so with some expertise.”
She wasn’t familiar with the word. Moreover, his manner confused her.
“My name is Boyd Franklin,” the man told her. “I am a Bow Street Runner.”
She knew of the runners. All London did. They solved crimes for pay. They had a reputation for being crafty and determined. Persistent to the point of annoyance.
“I see you know of us. I work to help others. I find thieves and the objects they have stolen. I hunt for missing persons who might have absconded with money not belonging to them. I know you have no reason to trust me, but I want to help you. What is your name?”
“Shelby. Slade,” she said begrudgingly.
“Well, Shelby Slade. It is Christmas, and I have just wrapped up an important case. I am on my way home to Mrs. Franklin. I promised her I would be in time for supper—and she promised me roasted goose. We would be happy to share that meal with you. What do you say?”
The thought of goose made her mouth water. He hadn’t harmed her so far. Bow Street Runners had a reputation for being a bit rough around the edges, but were known as hard workers and good men.
“I suppose I could eat a few bites of it.”
“Excellent,” Franklin proclaimed. “Come along, then.”
He turned and began walking briskly down the alley. She liked that he didn’t turn to see if she followed him. Shelby did so. At a distance.
A quarter-hour later, he turned the corner and then went down three houses. He paused and looked to his right, waving at her. She caught up to him.
“This is our home.” Pride was evident in his voice.
He removed a key and used it in the lock, calling out, “Dearest, I have brought home Shelby Slade to dine with us.”
A woman close to thirty appeared, golden hair piled atop her head. She was tiny, short in stature and with delicate bones.
“Why, hello, Shelby. I am so glad you’ve come to share Christmas dinner with us. Of course, as late as it is, I should call it Christmas supper instead. Come in and wash up.”
She did so, still wary as her eyes roamed the place, seeing it decorated with Christmas greenery.
Mrs. Franklin set another place at the table, and they went to it, taking their seats.
“Hat, dear,” the woman reminded her gently.
Grabbing it from her head, Shelby slipped it under her thigh.
Mr. Franklin carved the roasted goose, giving her a more than ample portion. Mrs. Franklin encouraged Shelby to fill her plate and she did so, covering the goose in hot gravy and piling foods she did not recognize next to it. The smells were delicious, though, and she savored each bite she took.
As they ate, the Franklins talked about themselves. Where they had met and when they’d wed. Mrs. Franklin then paused.
“We had a child once. He died shortly after I gave birth to him seven years ago. They have told me I can have no more. That his birth was too traumatic to my body.”
She paused. “We had a room for him. A room that has never been used. If you would like to stay the night, you are welcome to do so.”
She didn’t want to leave this warmth. This home. These people. For the first time in years, tears filled Shelby’s eyes.
“One night,” she said. “Only one.”
Something told her one night would become many.
Shelby Slade had finally found a home.
Edgewood, Hertfordshire—New Year’s Day 1814
Jasper Lincoln looked out over his congregation, concluding his sermon by saying, “And so in this new year, my friends, it is important to be the best version of yourself you can be. The Lord has given us a new year—and a blank slate. Write upon it with the joy and love good Christians should always hold in their hearts. Love one another as Christ urged us to. Forgive each other seven times seventy, as Our Lord asked be done. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. If you do so, this will be the most satisfying year of your life.”
He left the lectern and returned to his seat, giving time for his words to soak in and glad to have finished his sermon on a positive note, as he always tried to do each time he addressed his congregation. Rising again, he asked his parishioners to join him in song, and turned his attention to the organist, who also served as his sexton. Mr. Orr nodded and the strains of A Mighty Fortress is Our God began.
As Jasper sang in his rich baritone, knowing all the verses by heart, he thought about his own life and what it would be like in this coming year. He had settled into the living at Edgewood, thanks to his father, the Duke of Edgehaven. He had been serving here two years now, after the death of Edgewood’s most recent clergyman, and it was good to be home again. Having recently turned thirty years of age, he knew that it was time for him to finally settle down and find a wife. He had no lack of candidates. Ever since his return to Hertfordshire from his previous post in Kent, ladies in his congregation had been placing themselves in his path, left and right.
Jasper was not looking for some great love match. He didn’t know if he truly believed in them. He would simply find a woman with a kind heart, one who would be as Eve to Adam, a good helpmate. Well, perhaps someone a little better than Eve had turned out to be. As the hymn’s last chorus came to an end, he chuckled to himself. Eve had tempted Adam, causing the First Man to lose his place in the Garden of Eden. Jasper didn’t need a vixen such as that to ruin him. No, he was dedicated to his congregation and his family.
It was time, however, for him to create an earthly family of his own. Perhaps that would help hold the loneliness at bay. While he led a full life and filled his waking hours, it would be nice to have someone to talk to about his day and to watch his children grow.
He would be seeing his parents later today when he traveled to London. He had always been close to his father, who got along famously with everyone he met. The duke and his three sons had been inseparable until the boys reached adulthood and had gone their separate ways. Jarrod, Earl of Sutton, now resided in Sussex with his two daughters, Sylvia and Fanny. Jarrod’s wife had died in childbirth less than two months ago, in another attempt to try to give her husband the heir he so desperately wanted.
At five and thirty, Jarrod was becoming anxious about an heir. Jasper believed his oldest brother would partake in the Season this coming spring, cutting his mourning period short so that he might find a bride, one young enough to provide him with the heir he so desperately desired. He couldn’t blame his brother. His wife had lost numerous other babes over the years. If he didn’t produce an heir, the title would fall to the middle Lincoln brother.
Jude, the second son of the duke, served as a colonel in His Majesty’s army, fighting under Wellington. Wellington’s troops had finished their long mission in Spain and Portugal and had moved on to France. No letter had come from Jude since late-October, and the family was becoming anxious. Jasper prayed for his brother’s safety and health every night.
Once again, he approached the lectern and led his flock in a closing prayer to end the service. Once it concluded, he reminded his parishioners, “I will be traveling to London in order to spend some time with my family these next two weeks. I won’t be with you next Sunday, but I should have returned by the following one. Keep safe and God bless you all.”
He exited the church and waited outside, greeting the congregation as they left. As always, it took longer than he’d hoped, thanks to the many women who simply had to get a word in with him, married or not. He knew he was handsome but had never traded on his looks. Jasper wished, though, that he favored his father. Jude was the only one of the three brothers who did so, having the duke’s blond hair and green eyes. Jarrod and Jasper favored their mother, with both having russet hair that appeared brown indoors and yet had strong red highlights when out in the sun. They also had the duchess’ deep blue eyes and the tall, athletic build of her father and two brothers.
He returned to the vicarage, thoughts of his mother troubling him. Of all the Lincoln brothers, Jasper was obviously his mother’s darling. Her favoritism was blatant and had been awkward the entire time the boys were growing up. Nowadays, Jarrod and Jude merely teased their younger brother about it.
Although he was close with his father and considered the duke to be his best friend, Jasper had never warmed to his mother. The attention she lavished upon him smothered him as a child and overwhelmed him as he grew to manhood. He did what he could to distance himself from her when the duke and duchess were in residence at Edgehill. That would not be possible during his stay in town, however.
Most couples remained in the country until March or April, only returning to their London residences when the Season was ready to commence. The Duchess of Edgehaven loathed the country, however, tolerating it from Season’s end until the new year began. She had always insisted they return to town shortly after Boxing Day. Jasper loved his father but had thought the duke should have put his foot down years ago and have them remain at Edgehill. Then again, his mother would have sulked. Pouted. Finally, railed against the decision. He supposed to keep peace in the family was why the Duke and Duchess of Edgehaven returned to town earlier than most of the ton. At least his father’s closest friend, the Earl of Darrow, did the same. Jasper suspected Lord and Lady Darrow did so simply to keep the duke company.
Lord Darrow had been as a father to the three Lincoln siblings, often accompanying them and the duke as they hunted. It was Darrow who had taught all three boys to fish, the duke having no interest in the sport. The same was true of swimming. Lord Darrow was an excellent swimmer, and he made certain all three young Lincolns were, too.
As Jasper finished packing, he wondered if Lord Darrow would be in town. Lady Darrow had passed in mid-October, her heart weakening after a fever. Jasper didn’t know if the earl would remain in the country to mourn his wife or if he would return to town in his usual pattern. He hoped the earl would come to London.
Because Jasper was worried about his own father’s health.
The duke had been quite robust his entire life until the past several months. While residing in the country, his father enjoyed riding every morning, as well as hunting and shooting in the afternoons. But when the duke had returned from the Season, he appeared thin to Jasper. The weight continued to fall off Edgehaven until the point of the duke being downright gaunt. Jasper had insisted their local doctor call at Edgehill and examine the duke.
Dr. Davies said he could find nothing physically wrong with the duke, telling Jasper that when a man hit his mid-sixties, things were usually downhill from there.
He could not imagine a world without his father and best friend in it. It renewed his desire to find a wife and start a family as soon as possible. He needed his children to know their grandfather.
A knock sounded at his door, and he answered it, finding two Edgehill footmen on the other side.
“Is your trunk ready, my lord?” asked one.
“Yes,” he replied. “It is in the bedchamber.”
Though he never used his courtesy title of Lord Jasper, his mother insisted their staff continue to address him in that manner. It made him uncomfortable, but his mother was the single most stubborn woman Jasper had ever encountered. Once she had something in mind, there was no use trying to change it. While he looked forward to the time he would spend with his father during his two-week holiday, he knew he must put up with being around his mother. He hoped to limit his time with the woman.
Jasper climbed into the ducal carriage, and they were off. The journey from Hertfordshire to London usually took a little more than two hours. He found his thoughts drifting, and then he must have fallen asleep. Looking out the window, he saw the bustling streets of London and within a quarter-hour, they had arrived in Mayfair.
Bowen, their longtime butler in town, greeted him enthusiastically. “Good afternoon, Lord Jasper. It is delightful to see you once more. How does your flock at Edgewood fare?”
“As of this morning, all of them are in good spirits, with one being in labor with her third child. I pray for a safe delivery and will christen the babe upon my return.”
“I have your old room ready, my lord. Tea is about to be served in the drawing room.”
“Then I will head straight there, Bowen. Thank you.”
Jasper had spent summers in this townhouse, leaving school each term and coming to town with his two brothers. It was unusual because most parents of the ton sent their children to the country while they were participating in the Season. His parents insisted, though, that their three boys be with them. He knew his father did so because he enjoyed being around his sons. He believed his mother only requested their presence so she might be with her youngest child.
Still, London was a familiar city to him, one he always appreciated visiting. He, Jarrod, and Jude had ridden early each morning in Rotten Row as boys, a groom always accompanying them. They had gone to museums and bookstores with their father during the day and taken tea with many a noble couple since the Edgehavens entertained frequently while in town. The boys were even allowed to sit in the gallery and watch the dancers at the ball hosted by his parents on Midsummer’s Eve each year. He had attended a few of those balls himself while he was still in university but had not done so since then. He had trained to enter the church and been assigned to a parish in Kent, where he had stayed until the living opened at Edgewood.
Entering the drawing room, he tamped down the disappointment when he saw his mother and no one else. Dread filled Jasper as he crossed the room and went to her, bending to brush his lips against her cheek.
“Hello, Mama,” he said, taking a seat opposite her. “Where is Father?”
Irritation filled her face. “He is napping, Jasper. His health is not much improved since we last saw you at Christmas dinner.”
It had worried him when his mother had entered the church on Christmas Day alone. During the entire sermon he gave, his worries had increased. After the service ended, Mama had told Jasper the duke had wished to rest up for their Christmas dinner, which was held at three o’clock that afternoon. Jarrod had not come to Edgehill, sending word that he and the girls wished for a quiet Christmas this first year since the death of his countess.
When the duke had entered the dining room, leaning heavily on his valet’s arm, Jasper had been shocked at how frail his father looked. He’d eaten very little, though Jasper had encouraged him to try almost every dish available.
He now asked his mother, “Is he worse off than he was on Christmas Day?”
“I believe Edgehaven’s time on earth is limited, my precious boy.”
“Then you never should have returned to town,” he snapped. “Father did not need to be traveling. And you know he prefers Dr. Davies to any physician here. I think you should return to the country at once, Mama.”
The duchess studied him a long moment. “You have always defended him, Jasper. You have been a good protector of your father over the years. I do not believe, however, that Edgehaven is well enough to travel at this time. He needs to regain his strength before undertaking even a short journey. We shall remain in town for now.”
He eyed her as he began pouring out for them. “Will you return to Edgehill with him, Mama? Or stay in town, as you prefer?”
“Jasper, you are old enough that I should be able to speak to you candidly. It is time you knew the truth.”
A chill settled over him. “What truth?” he pressed.
“Edgehaven and I have barely tolerated one another through the decades.”
There. She had admitted it aloud. He and his brothers had suspected it for years. His parents always spoke cordially in front of their children, but in his heart of hearts, Jasper thought his mother despised her husband.
“We have put up a good front all these years, but I am tired of all the pretense. It wears on me. I cannot stand the sight of Edgehaven, while he is indifferent to me.”
“Then why did the two of you even wed?” he demanded.
She handed him a cup and saucer, shaking her head. “You have no idea what it is like to be a woman. Women are merely chess pieces moved about a chessboard by their families.” She paused and then softly said, “I fell in love when I was a young lady making my come-out.”
He watched as her face softened. No longer was she the haughty Duchess of Edgehaven. Instead, Jasper caught a glimpse of the young woman she had been. One in love.
She stared into the distance as she revealed, “I loved a viscount with all my heart. He had offered for me. He asked me first, before going to my father, and I had accepted him with enthusiasm.”
Her face darkened. “When he called on my father the next day, however, he left Father’s study looking bemused. I had been lurking at the top of the stairs and rushed down them to him.”
Mama’s mouth hardened. “It was then that he told me I already had a betrothed. That my father had arranged for me to marry the Duke of Edgehaven, and the marriage contracts were to be signed later that day. No one had shared a word of this with me.”
Her eyes met Jasper’s, and he saw hate glittering in them.
“Immediately, I went to Papa, demanding to know what he had arranged behind my back. He told me while a viscount—who would one day be an earl—was a suitable husband, a duke was much higher in rank. That the union between our families would be good for both sides.”
She frowned. “I had been introduced to Edgehaven, of course, soon after the Season began. I had not even danced with the man, much less held a conversation with him, though.” Her eyes narrowed. “He was weak, allowing his own father to force this union upon us. And I have never forgiven him for it.”
These revelations had Jasper reeling. Still, he tried to calm his mother’s anger. “Mama, there are many women who marry candidates their fathers have chosen for them. Surely, you knew this going into your come-out Season?”
“Of course, I did,” she said bitterly. “But I was in love.”
“I am sorry you had to be parted from your sweetheart. On the bright side, Father gave you three wonderful sons. Are you not even a little happy that you have us?”
A slow smile spread across her face, and she reached for his hand. “Of course, I am, my darling boy. I live for my children. Especially you.”
He pulled his hand from hers. “Mama,” he said sternly. “I have asked you not to be this way. Your preferential treatment of me has got to end. It caused trouble between my brothers and me growing up.”
“Pish-posh,” she declared. “You are grown men now. You have a brother who is an earl and one who fights for his country. You rarely even see them. At least I am lucky enough to see you more ever since you came back to Edgewood.”
She reached out and brushed a fallen lock from his forehead.
“See!” he said angrily, jerking back. “You still treat me as if I am a child. I am a grown man, Mama. I have a profession. And I will soon be seeking a wife.”
Alarm filled her face. “Oh, you do not need to do so, Jasper. Not yet.”
“Why should I wait? My parishioners expect their spiritual leader to be wed. I also wish to have children and certainly need a wife for that.”
Her gaze pinned his. “Promise me you won’t do anything rash.”
He cocked an eyebrow. “Have I ever been known to be rash, Mama? I am likely the most deliberate man you have ever known. I have decided, however, to take a wife and will do so by the end of this new year.”
She breathed what sounded like a sigh of relief. “Keep me apprised, Jasper.”
He didn’t say that he had no intention of doing so. Any name he mentioned to his mother wouldn’t be good enough for her. She would toss out that he was a duke’s son and should wed someone within his own class. In truth, he was a poorly compensated clergyman and needed a wife who was not from the ton. A woman who would be willing to put in the hard work beside him in leading their congregation. He already had three candidates in mind—but would keep that to himself.
Bowen appeared, bearing a silver tray. “This came for His Grace, Your Grace. I thought I would leave it with you, Your Grace.”
“Thank you, Bowen,” the duchess said dismissively, and the butler exited the drawing room.
She began to break the seal, and Jasper said, “Wait. What are you doing? Bowen said it was addressed to Father.”
Before she could reply, he heard a cough and looked up, seeing the duke being led to tea by his valet. Immediately, Jasper came to his feet and hurried across the room.
“I’ll take it from here,” he told Watson.
Guiding his father to a settee, he eased the older man onto it and sat next to him, shocked at how much his father’s health had deteriorated in the week since Jasper had last seen him.
“Father, you look gravely ill. Have you seen a physician since you arrived in town?”
“No, Son. Dr. Davies has found nothing wrong with me. Neither would anyone else. I am simply growing old.” He coughed again. “I fear my end is drawing near.”
“Don’t say that,” he admonished gently.
“A letter came, Edgehaven,” Mama said sharply. “Shall I read it to you?”
The duke sighed. “Go ahead.”
Jasper watched her break the seal and skim it. She glanced up, looking flustered.
“What is it?” Jasper asked.
She swallowed. “It is news. News of your brother.”
A sinking feeling filled Jasper. He took the parchment she offered and quickly read its contents to himself.
15 November 1813
To His Grace, the Duke of Edgehaven –
I regret to inform you that your son, Colonel Jude Lincoln, was killed in action during the Battle of Nivelle, fought on French soil these past four days. This defeat of Soult would not have been possible without brave men such as your son.
I had the pleasure of working closely with Colonel Lincoln and personally saw to his burial. He was a bright, courageous man. His contributions to Britain’s war effort will not be forgotten. Sincerely,
Sir John James Hamilton
“What is it, Jasper?” the duke asked.
Tears blinded him as he said, “We haven’t heard from Jude because he was killed in battle. At Nivelle, November last.”
His father began sobbing uncontrollably. Jasper comforted the old man as best he could. Only as he wiped at his own tears did he see his mother.
The Duchess of Edgehaven sat dry-eyed, the news of the death of her second son not moving her in the slightest.
He had known she could be selfish and even petty—but heartless?
Jasper had never loved his mother, merely endured being around her. Seeing her now with no sorrow on her face caused him to harden his heart toward her. He might preach to his congregation of loving others.
But Jasper would never love the woman who gave birth to him.
Jasper told his mother to ring for Bowen and then swept his weeping father into his arms, carrying him to his ducal bedchamber. Watson, the valet, was already present and turned back the bedclothes as Jasper set his father onto the mattress. As the two men undressed the duke, Bowen appeared, and Jasper asked for a physician to be summoned immediately.
“I want a doctor here within a half-hour, Bowen,” he instructed.
“Of course, my lord.”
“Also send a rider to my brother’s estate. I think Lord Sutton should be here.”
Left unsaid was that Jarrod might become the new Duke of Edgehaven within a few days.
Once his father was in bed and pillows lumped behind him, Jasper took a seat at the bedside and gathered the old man’s hand in his. He nodded to Watson, and the valet slipped from the room.
“Father, what do you think is wrong with you?”
The duke shrugged.
“You have always been blessed with good health. It seems as if everything came on suddenly.”
“I am just getting old, Jasper. That is what Dr. Davies has told me.”
If he were being frank, Jasper didn’t trust the diagnosis given by the Edgewood physician. Dr. Davies was in his seventies and though he had the duke’s trust, Jasper couldn’t help but think that Davies had missed something. His father had lost too much weight in too short a time. He had become weak and infirm within a few short months.
“Dr. Davies has told me the same thing, and yet I disagree, Father. I think there is more to it than old age.”
“You think I have something growing inside me, such as a tumor?” his father asked, fear in his eyes. “Or a weak heart, perhaps?”
“It is just that you have been dizzy and confused in recent months. Your coloring has altered. You complain of stomach pains. You have lost a tremendous amount of weight. Yet Dr. Davies can seem to find nothing wrong with you.”
His father smiled ruefully. “I am five and sixty, Jasper. I won’t live forever, you know. Besides, these last few months have been difficult ones. Frankly, death would come as a relief.”
He squeezed his father’s fingers. “Don’t say that. We still need you with us for many years to come. I still need you.”
“Ah, you are a grown man, Jasper Lincoln. You thrive as a vicar. I have never heard another clergyman give a sermon the way you can. You draw in your parishioners and weave a story for them to listen to. It always has a moral, and you simplify things into terms easy to understand. I have no doubt you will rise high in the church, my boy.”
“I have no such ambitions, Father. If I served out my entire career at Edgewood, I would be happy.”
The duke’s gaze bored into him. “Are you happy, Jasper? Truly?”
“I have done some soul-searching in recent days. If you are speaking of a wife and children, yes, I do believe I am ready for both. That my happiness would grow if I had a family of my own.”
The duke winced, drawing in a sharp breath. His grip on Jasper’s hand tightened.
“Then my best advice to you, my son, is to marry for love. That was not something I was allowed to do.”
Jasper studied his father a moment, reeling at the revelations revealed to him by both parents in so short a time. “Were you ever in love, Father? Before you married Mama?”
His fathered sighed. “I was, indeed. Very deeply in love. In fact, she was the daughter of one of your predecessors. The man who held the living at Edgewood two times removed before you. When I told my father of my intentions to offer for her, he merely laughed in my face. He told me there was no such thing as love, at least not for high-ranking members of Polite Society. That if I thought so much of the chit, I should make her my mistress. He forbade me to wed her and two days later, he summoned me to his study. His solicitor and another one were present, and I witnessed the marriage settlements being drawn up and signed.”
“For you and Mama?”
How ironic that both his parents had loved others—and yet were forced to wed one another. No wonder their marriage had been such a miserable one. Jasper had not known this for thirty years, and yet it gave him insight into his parents and their relationship.
“Mama told me at tea today that she had once loved another man. Did you know of this?”
The duke pulled his hand from Jasper’s and pressed both palms to his belly, moaning low.
“The pain is bad?” he asked, feeling helpless as he watched his father struggle.
His father’s eyes fluttered a few times and closed. He fell into a restless sleep, not having answered his son’s question. It wouldn’t surprise Jasper if his mother had immediately informed her new husband that she loved another. Perhaps Father had done the same—and that had been the root of their animosity all these years. His father had understood the role he was born to play, heir to a dukedom, and had wed the woman his parents selected for him.
Mama, on the other hand, was strong in spirit. She would have never given in to such a pretense, possibly gloating that she had a sweetheart, one who would forever hold her heart.
That thought troubled him. Instead of a sweetheart, what if the man Mama loved had been her lover? Or continued to be one after her marriage? Both he and Jarrod favored Mama in looks, while Jude was his father made over. Jasper had always thought that the reason Mama was so short with Jude was because he looked exactly like the duke.
Could Jarrod—and possibly Jasper himself—be the sons of another man?
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