Love Blooms with the Duke (Suddenly a Duke Book 6)
A beautiful woman trying to support herself as a governess . . .
Two people who want to be accepted—and who long for love . . .
Xander Hughes, London’s biggest rake, suddenly finds himself in over his head, becoming the Duke of Brockbank and guardian to two nieces he has never met. He decides he must turn over a new leaf and become a sober, responsible duke and starts by hiring a governess for the girls. But Miss Fennimore is a most unique governess with her odd methods of education—and soon Xander wonders if she might make for an even better duchess.
Willa Fennimore’s parents were the toast of London’s theatre world until Theodosia Fennimore murdered her playwright husband and then leaped to her death. Not wishing to become an actress like her mother, Willa supports herself as a companion and governess for a decade, finding her latest post is to instruct a duke’s two unruly nieces.
As Willa falls in love with the orphaned girls, she finds herself also tumbling into love with the Duke of Brockbank. She’s been warned that the duke was a wild rogue before he inherited his title, but Willa only knows the caring man who meets his duties head on and spends an inordinate amount of time with his nieces, who aren’t so terrible after all.
After Brockbank offers marriage to Willa, she dreams of a new life filled with love and happiness. The only thing standing in her way is the secret of her past. If Willa shares her background, she fears she might lose Xander forever.
Will Xander reject Willa when he learns of the scandal involving her parents—or will this rule-breaking duke flout the rules of Polite Society yet again and make a most inappropriate woman his duchess?
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: August 31, 2023
Publisher: Dragonblade Publishing, Inc.
Print pages: 281
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
Love Blooms with the Duke (Suddenly a Duke Book 6)
Willa Fennimore winced as Theodosia ranted about some trivial matter. Her mother berated the new housekeeper as Willa stood off to the side, feeling sorry for the woman. If Theodosia wasn’t careful, the housekeeper would quit less than a month into her service.
Not that that mattered. Servants came and went with alarming frequency in the Fennimore household. Either Ambrose became too attached to the young, pretty ones—and his wife fired them—or Theodosia argued and castigated them into quitting.
Willa had known nothing but chaos her entire life.
She was barely ten and five and felt at least double her age, sometimes believing she was the only true Fennimore adult. In truth, she ran much of the household because her parents couldn’t bother to take the time to do so. Ambrose was the fourth son of an earl and one of London’s most celebrated playwrights. He had married Theodosia, who was an actress of great renown these days. Together, they had produced Willa and then promptly ignored their parental duties. For the most part, Ambrose overlooked her, while Theodosia had lately begun pretending she was Willa’s older sister. At thirty-five, Theodosia was still a breathtakingly beautiful woman, but a woman aware of the clock ticking on that beauty. Her mother was constantly pushing for her husband to write new material for her, afraid she would not be able to remain on the stage as she grew older.
Theodosia had been her husband’s muse for the sixteen years they had been together, causing him to produce over a dozen plays in which she played the leading role. The new theater season was about to embark, thanks to the London Season starting in a month’s time. If there was one thing members of Polite Society enjoyed doing, it was spending a night out at the theater.
At least with the Season approaching and new plays going into production, Willa would be totally left on her own. She had raised herself for the most part, having only had a governess for a single year when she was seven. Up until that point, Theodosia had brought her daughter to the theater and left her to roam it while she worked. Willa had become part of the theater family from a young age, with everyone from actors to prop masters to scene decorators looking after her. Once she learned to read and write, the governess was let go. Actually, fired by Theodosia because she suspected her husband was far too interested in the attractive, young woman. It was a pattern of her parents’ marriage—Ambrose’s roving eye and Theodosia’s hysterics when she discovered his unfaithfulness.
Willa liked her father to a degree but would never have put up with him as a husband. As for her mother, she avoided Theodosia for the most part, not enjoying the drama the actress created off-stage.
“I quit!” the new housekeeper declared, throwing her hands in the air.
Willa shook her head, not even remembering the woman’s name. She sighed, thinking this was but another loss due to her mother’s mercurial nature.
The servant stormed from the room, Theodosia shouting at her, her language worse than that of a sailor.
In other words, a typical day in the Fennimore household.
Her mother finally calmed after pacing a bit and turned to Willa. “Come, Willa. We will go to the theater now.”
They left the house and walked the half-mile to the playhouse, where Ambrose’s latest play was being produced. Although they could have easily afforded to hail a hansom cab, Theodosia insisted they walk, claiming the exercise was good for them.
Actually, Willa enjoyed walking and spent a great deal of her time moving about the streets of London by foot. On her own, she visited museums and frequented parks and bookstores. She felt intimately acquainted with London after having spent her entire life living in the great city.
They arrived at the theater, where the first rehearsal would begin in a couple of hours. Still, the hustle and bustle within reflected the closeness to opening night. While Theodosia went off to find her dresser, who was working on costumes for the play, Willa made the rounds, visiting with everyone. She talked to the prop master, who had put her to work when she was five, lining up props and handing them off to actors as they entered and exited the stage. She talked with two workers painting a backdrop for the second act, which took place outside a Parisian café. The smell of paint would always be in her blood since she had helped paint background scenery for years.
She moved to the conductor of the orchestra and spent time visiting with him, telling him about the latest piece she had composed on the pianoforte. Willa was self-trained in music, having spent many hours listening to orchestras rehearse. She had been composing music for a few years now, despite the fact she could not read it. It all was stored in her head. That was something she decided she would like to learn this year.
Everything Willa learned was self-taught. Once she knew how to read, Theodosia had told her to pursue whatever topics interested her. Willa took her mother at her word and explored all kinds of subjects. One of her favorites had been languages. Though many of the people who worked in the theater were English by birth, a growing portion was immigrants. Willa had an ear for languages and over the years, merely by lingering in the theater for hours and hours each day, had picked up French, Spanish, and Italian. All three were romance languages and seemed to come naturally to her. A new carpenter from Dusseldorf had just started working at the theater last month. She had spent weeks begging him to teach her German. Although she found the language a bit guttural and it didn’t flow as well as the romance languages, she was picking up phrases here and there from him.
After two hours had passed, she went backstage to her mother’s dressing room and stood at the open door, measuring the temperature of the room before entering. Theodosia was in a heated discussion with her dresser. Nothing new there. Their voices began to escalate, and Willa decided it was time to go home to the solace of the gardens. Gardening was the single thing that soothed her when nothing else could. Felton, their gardener, came two or three days a week and had become her friend over the years. He had taught her everything she knew about plants and flowers. She found there was nothing like digging in the dirt to soothe her soul.
Leaving backstage, Willa came upon Ralph Baldwin, the director of Ambrose’s latest play, as well as the new owner of this particular theater. She liked him because he was always friendly to her, and the questions he asked made it seem as if he were truly interested in her replies.
“Have you come from Theodosia’s dressing room?”
“Yes, Mr. Baldwin. She is in a row with her dresser right now. If she asks—not that she will—tell her that I have gone home.”
The director placed his hand on her shoulder and gave it a squeeze. “I am sorry, Willa.”
His hand fell away, and he shrugged. “For you not having a childhood like most of us enjoyed. For having parents who don’t act as parents to you at all.”
“Do not feel sorry for me, Mr. Baldwin. I learned long ago that it does no good. I realize my parents should never have become parents. Theodosia was too young and selfish to ever have a child. Ambrose only thinks women are good for fucking.”
He overlooked her crude words. “You have raised yourself, haven’t you?” he asked.
“I have—and I believe I have done a fine job of it,” she said saucily, winking at him.
Unexpectedly, he pulled her into his arms and hugged her tightly. Pulling back, he rested his hands on her shoulders and said, “You know if you ever need anything, you can come to me, Willa. I may not be your legal godfather, but I would like to think I could help.”
“Thank you,” she said, moved by his words. “The theater is full of good people, people who have helped me all these years. People such as you, who show me on a daily basis that you care. Thank you.”
She turned away, her throat thick with unshed tears. Usually, she did not show such emotions. Her upbringing had been chaotic, and Willa found she enjoyed order in her life. She had learned to disguise her emotions at a young age and take pleasure from order, realizing she was a private person and did not want to share much with others. While she felt liked, she had never experienced love and doubted she ever would. Ambrose and Theodosia were too selfish to love anyone but themselves—and possibly, each other, upon occasion.
As she left the theater, she heard Mr. Baldwin calling for order and for someone to retrieve his lead actress. Willa knew the director liked to take rehearsals from the beginning, so they would start with Act 1, Scene 1.
What did surprise her was that her father was not present this morning. She knew he had been at the readings of the play the past few weeks, as the actors gathered in a large room about a table and read aloud from their scripts. Ralph Baldwin had given them suggestions and had them read a scene again, trying to perfect as much as they could before they began blocking the actions of the play and then adding in the words, stage directions, and props.
It was unlike Ambrose not to be at a first rehearsal. Then again, he might be starting a new work. Sometimes, her father got an idea and would work around the clock for days, barely taking time to even eat and only getting a couple of hours of sleep before he was back at his desk, scribbling away, as inspiration filled him.
After only having gone half a block, she heard someone calling her name and turned. Surprisingly, it was Jemima James who hurried after her.
“Are you going home?” the actress asked.
“Do you mind if I accompany you? I need to discuss a scene with Ambrose. I am still not quite certain of my character’s motivation.”
Willa had heard this very excuse before and said, “Shouldn’t you take that up with Mr. Baldwin? He is the director, after all. He can tell you how to play the scene, Jemima.”
The pretty actress pursed her lips a moment. She really was quite attractive. From what Willa recalled, Jemima was only three years older than she was and had been acting a good five years or more on the stage because of her mature looks and figure. Jemima had been the understudy to Theodosia in two other productions and served in that capacity again for the new play. This time, though, she was also cast as the second female lead. Willa suspected Ambrose had written the role for Jemima.
“It’s just that Ambrose created my character. Oh, I know that Ralph could walk me through things. But I need Ambrose’s advice on it. Since he didn’t appear at the theater today, I wasn’t able to ask him.”
Willa started moving down the pavement again, and Jemima fell into step beside her.
“You are welcome to see if Ambrose is at home. If he is, though, he is probably working on something new and won’t wish to be disturbed. I am merely warning you that you might not be able to see him.”
“It’s worth taking the chance,” Jemima said breathily.
That was when she knew her father stayed home deliberately today. The first act was full of Theodosia and her two male co-stars. Jemima did not even appear until the second act. If Ralph Baldwin kept to his usual pattern, the company would only be rehearsing scenes in the first act today, keeping Theodosia tied up.
And leaving Jemima free.
Guilt washed through her. By bringing Jemima home with her, Willa felt she was betraying her mother. Yet, in a way, she couldn’t blame Ambrose. Theodosia’s rages were becoming more and more frequent. She had even begun to wonder if her parents might consider divorcing. True, it would create a scandal—but scandals oftentimes sold tickets.
They arrived, and Willa used her key to let herself in. They hadn’t had a butler in some months and no longer had a housekeeper as of this morning. She didn’t see any other servants about.
"Let me go and see if Ambrose is in his study working," she told the young actress.
"Why do you call your father Ambrose?" Jemima asked, her curiosity obvious.
Willa didn’t care to share with this woman that both her parents had rejected the traditional titles of Mama and Papa. Her father hadn’t truly wanted children and insisted from the time she began walking and talking that his daughter address him by his Christian name. Naturally, her mother followed suit. From what Willa knew, Theodosia had become with child soon after she met Ambrose and had insisted they wed. Something had gone wrong during the birthing process, however, and Theodosia had been told by the midwife it would be impossible for her to have more children in the future. That was perfectly acceptable to the actress. She wanted to be eternally youthful and remain on the stage as long as she could.
It took some time before Willa understood how unwanted she truly was. Still, she respected her parents’ wishes and addressed them as Ambrose and Theodosia. She didn’t bother to correct anyone when they mistook Theodosia and her for sisters.
“It’s a theater thing,” she said airily. “Having been brought up in the theater, it is natural for me to call them by their first names. Wait here. I will return shortly.”
She left Jemima in the foyer and went to her father’s study, not bothering to knock. If he were truly working, he wouldn’t hear the knock anyway. Opening the door, she saw him standing at the window, looking out at the gardens.
“Jemima James is here to see you,” she informed him.
He turned, and she saw the gleam in his eyes, confirming this was no random meeting but a planned assignation.
“Is she? Whatever for? Rehearsals started today. She should be there, watching Theodosia, since Jemima is her understudy.”
Continuing with the farce, Willa said, “Jemima says that she is having trouble developing her character’s motivation and thought to go straight to the source. Shall I bring her to you?”
“No, I will fetch her myself.”
That meant they would be going straight to his bedchamber. No need for the farce to play out with Theodosia tied up all day.
“What will you be doing?” he asked, wanting to establish her whereabouts.
“I will join Felton. We are going to prune the rose bushes today.”
Ambrose’s nose crinkled in disgust. “I don’t know what you see in spending time with that man.”
Tired of holding her tongue, she tossed back, “That man has had a good deal of raising me. I enjoy his company and gardening, Ambrose. It is quite soothing and calms me.”
He laughed harshly. “Then I wish Theodosia would take it up. She has been more volatile as of late.”
“Might you think about being faithful to her for once?” she challenged. “It couldn’t hurt.”
His brows arched. “What are you saying?”
“Just that Theodosia becomes enraged every time you take up with a new lover. Such as Jemima James.”
“You are challenging me?” he asked angrily.
“No, Ambrose. I am simply trying to give you some advice. But you are going to do as you choose.”
Worry filled his eyes. “Will you tell her?”
“I never have, have I? No, that is between the two of you. Conduct your affairs as you see fit, and leave me out of your quarrels.”
Storming from his study, she went upstairs to change into an old gown, covering it with a large gardening apron Felton had given her for her birthday last year. She took several deep breaths, pushing her anger away. It did no good to be upset with her parents. They were like spoiled, unruly children who made everything about them. She couldn’t wait to leave their household. She planned in a few years to ask Felton if she could come to work for him. It would infuriate her parents since both assumed she would follow in their footsteps and make the theater her world when she reached adulthood.
That was the last place she would wish to be.
By the time she reached the gardens, her anger had subsided, and she greeted her friend, who handed her a set of gloves.
“How are you today, Felton?”
He looked up, shading his eyes. “Right as rain, Miss Willa. You ready to prune?”
“Of course. Test me.”
His eyes lit with amusement. “All right then. Why do we prune roses?”
She smiled. “There are four reasons to do so. We want to remove dead and diseased branches.”
“And those are called what?”
“Canes,” she replied. “We also want to revive the plant and encourage it to bloom. We prune to control the shape of the rose bushes and their size and should cut stems crossing or rubbing against one another. Last, we must foster airflow through the shrub.”
“How much should be removed and retained?” the gardener questioned.
“We will cut about one-third of the old branches and leave the other two-thirds in place. This will encourage fresh blooms.”
“You’ve learned your lessons well, Miss Willa. Why do we prune in March?”
Knowing it to be a trick question, she laughed. “Sometimes, we do so in March, Felton. It is best to wait until the forsythias bloom before we prune our rose bushes. Pruning might take place in late February. Throughout March. On rare occasions, even early April.”
Her friend smiled. “Can’t pull a fast one on you, Miss Willa. Let’s get started. What’s our first step?”
“We must remove the leaves surrounding the rose bushes,” she told him. “So we can see all the stems.” Grinning, she added, “We might even find some pests hiding under them.”
“Disease, too,” he added.
They began clearing the leaves and then tested the wood, cutting into it. Brown meant the wood was dead and green signified it lived. She cut the dead wood back to the base of several bushes in the section they worked. Felton liked to prune a section at a time before moving to the next grouping. She began opening up the centers of the plants and sawed away any thin, weak growth.
As they worked in quiet in companionable silence, Willa felt at one with the earth. She would enjoy devoting her life to plants and flowers.
Then familiar noises started up, and she winced. Glancing up, she saw her father’s bedchamber window open, knowing the sounds came from there.
“He’s got a new one?” Felton asked.
“Another actress,” she confirmed. “She is only a few years older than I am.”
The gardener shook his head. “He’ll never learn.”
The noise grew louder, and Willa wanted to put her hands over her ears. She forced herself to continue working, though, as Jemima’s scream of pleasure came from the open window on the second floor. Ambrose’s shouts also let them know he was enjoying the illicit lovemaking. Sometimes, Willa believed the danger of discovery encouraged Ambrose to keep bringing new lovers to the house.
Then the quiet enveloped them again. The couple probably had fallen asleep.
She and Felton worked for several more hours with their saws and shears, pruning the canes so that the new stems would grow outward in the direction of the buds. They sealed the new cuts and began picking up all the leaves and cut branches, placing them in two nearby wheelbarrows. Felton would burn these so if they contained any disease or pests, the roses would be protected from both.
Pushing herself to a standing position, Willa surveyed their progress and was pleased. Before she could say anything, though, she heard a familiar shriek and loud cursing come from the window of her father’s bedchamber.
Theodosia was home.
And not happy.
“Another tart?” her mother shouted, her trained stage voice carrying from the house to them.
Felton shrugged and stood, taking the handles of one of the wheelbarrows and rolling it away.
Willa knew she should take the other and follow him, yet couldn’t. She was drawn into the drama playing out above her.
She listened as her mother hurled insult upon insult at Ambrose and Jemima, cringing at the language and volatility. Thinking she should go and interrupt the tirade, Willa removed her gardening gloves and apron.
And then the deafening noise came, so loud that Willa recoiled, dropping to her knees and covering her ears. After a moment, the fog in her brain cleared, her incoherent thoughts becoming crystal clear.
It had been a gun that sounded.
An awful gnawing ran through her. She heard screaming. Two women screaming. Theodosia and Jemima.
“Look what you’ve done,” Jemima shouted. “You’ve killed him. And almost me!”
“You both deserved it,” Theodosia retorted, venom in her voice.
Willa saw her mother appear at the open window and realized she was trying to reload the gun. Jemima came into view, blood all down her front. She grabbed for the pistol and Theodosia jerked back—and fell through the open window.
In that moment, her gaze connected with her mother’s. Willa saw the panic.
Then Theodosia hit the ground with a thud. Felton was suddenly there, and both he and Willa ran toward the body. A low, guttural noise came from her mother, the sound a dying animal made.
And then quiet once more occurred.
Felton eased Theodosia onto her back. It was obvious she was gone. Her neck was at an incredibly odd angle. Her eyes bulged in horror.
“Look away, Miss Willa,” Felton said gently, sweeping his hand down to close the dead woman’s eyes.
She couldn’t, though. She had never been close to death.
Another scream sounded from inside the house. A footman rushed outside and took in the situation, shouting, “I’ll go for the doctor.”
No doctor would be able to bring Theodosia back to life.
Numbly, Willa stood and said to Felton, “Stay with her. I’ll go see Ambrose.”
She went inside and trudged up the stairs. A housemaid flew by her, also screaming. Willa headed down the corridor and went through the open door of her father’s bedchamber. She saw Jemima staring down at the bed, holding her hand to her shoulder.
Going to her father, horror ran through Willa as she saw the bullet her mother fired had gone through his right eye. He lay naked on the bed, his one good eye staring at the ceiling.
Willa looked at Jemima, who wore Ambrose’s tan banyan, now covered in blood. Dully, the woman said, “The bullet passed through him. It struck my shoulder.” Then fear filled her face. “I did not mean for her to fall, Willa. We fought over the pistol. I thought . . . I thought she would kill me.”
Jemima gulped, tears streaming down her face. “I did not mean for her to fall.”
“She would have,” Willa agreed, making a quick decision. “No one needs to know the two of you struggled. You had no role in Theodosia’s death. She took her own life after she killed Ambrose.”
Confused, Jemima asked, “What?”
“You were never here,” Willa told her. “I will send a doctor to see to your wound. Do not tell anyone what happened here today.”
“You would protect me?”
Nodding, she said, “There is no point in destroying your life, Jemima. The play may or may not shut down. If Mr. Baldwin decides to continue, you will be cast in the lead role since you are the current understudy. The part is a good one. You and I both know it could make your career. But if you are associated with this tragedy, you might be blackballed from the acting community.”
Jemima began to weep. “Why are you helping me? I caused this.”
She took Jemima’s hand in hers. “No, they caused it. They were locked in a vicious cycle for years. A cycle of love and hate. I will not let their behavior take you down.”
The actress lifted Willa’s hand and kissed it. “Thank you. Thank you, Willa.”
“Go home. If anyone asks why you were not at the theater today—and I doubt they will—say that you were ill. No, say that Theodosia told you that you were not needed since only Act 1 would be rehearsed today.”
“But I am the understudy. I should have been there to watch her performance. To take notes.”
Willa shrugged. “Say that Theodosia was jealous of you. Told you to stay away. No one would doubt that.”
“All right,” Jemima agreed. “I owe you a great deal, Willa. My life. My career.”
“All I ask in return is that you stick with this story,” she insisted. “They quarreled. Theodosia shot Ambrose and then killed herself. They could be poison to one another, but they also thrived with one another. She could not have lived without him.”
Pausing, Willa thought a moment. “Did you see any servants while you were here?”
“Only a maid. She ran in after Theodosia fell. She saw Ambrose’s body and left, screaming. I don’t think she ever looked at me.”
“Good. Let me help you dress.”
Willa went to her father’s wardrobe and removed a white shirt, tearing it into strips and wrapping it about Jemima’s shoulder to stanch the bleeding. She got the actress back into her shift and gown, tossing the rest of her garments into the wardrobe and closing it after removing Ambrose’s greatcoat.
Slipping it about Jemima’s shoulders, she said, “Go home. I will send the doctor to you. You cannot stay here.”
Quickly, she led Jemima from the bedchamber and down the back staircase, asking for the girl’s address.
“Lie down when you get to your room,” she advised. “The less you move about, the better your chances are. I don’t think your wound is serious.”
Jemima snorted. “Well, it hurts like Hades.”
“If the bullet had struck bone, you would be in much greater pain. I saw no evidence of bone being shattered, so it is merely a flesh wound. Keep your mouth shut. I will do what I can and encourage Mr. Baldwin to keep the play going, and you recast in Theodosia’s role.”
As they stepped outside, Jemima said, “I will never forget your kindness, Willa.”
She watched Jemima hurry away and returned to Felton, who sat by the body.
“Dead in his bed,” she said succinctly.
“You sent the girl away?”
“I did. No sense in her being a part of this tragedy.” She shook her head. “Theodosia would want the newspaper headlines reserved for her and Ambrose. I told Jemima to keep quiet.”
“So, your mother shot your father as they argued and then took her own life?”
“What will you do now, Miss Willa?”
She swallowed painfully, knowing how her life would now change. Still, she was free of the two people who had been responsible for her. She would make her own way in the world.
Turning to Felton, she said, “I would like to—”
She paused, mid-sentence, seeing his face twisted in pain. His hands flew to his heart, and he grimaced.
“Felton?” she asked, panic flooding her. “What is wrong?”
“It hurts, Miss Willa. My chest. It’s burning like it’s caught on fire.”
“No,” she whispered, dread filling her, knowing everything which had taken place was too much for him.
He began swaying, and she caught his elbow, trying to steady him. “Here, Felton. Let’s ease you to the ground. I will summon the doctor. Everything will be all right. I promise.”
He gasped in short spurts, and Willa saw beads of sweat form along his brow.
“Dizzy,” he managed to say. “So dizzy. And tired.”
He whimpered softly, and she knew this was the end for him. Bitterness filled her, knowing a good man’s demise was the fault of her parents. She tightened her grip on him, but he groaned and collapsed, falling to the ground.
“Felton! No!” Willa shouted, dropping to her knees, shaking him. “Felton!”
But her friend and surrogate father was gone.
A darkness spread through her, cold and raw. Felton had been her hope. Her salvation. The one person who truly cared for her.
Willa Fennimore was now alone in the world.
Spring Ridge, southern Kent—January 1813
Alexander Hughes glanced out the carriage window at the rolling countryside. They would arrive at Spring Ridge soon, a place he had not visited since childhood. He looked back at Rollo, who sat across from him. Rollo was the eldest of the four Hughes brothers. The Duchess of Brockbank had given birth to three boys in the first three years of her marriage—Rollo, the heir apparent; Peter, now a major-general in His Majesty’s army; and Stanley, who held the living at Sherfield, the closest village to Spring Ridge.
Those three sons’ roles were destined by their birth order. Heir. Military. Clergy. Xander, being a fourth son, weas left with no defined place.
Other than murderer.
That was the word his father had used to describe his youngest son because Xander’s birth had killed his mother. Brockbank had only spoken to his fourth son a handful of times over the years, and once Xander left for university, he had never laid eyes upon his father again. After graduation, he accepted his quarterly allowance from Mr. Crockle, the family solicitor, and kept rooms in London, which he shared with his friend, Gil, Viscount Swanson. Xander never saw or had any contact with his brothers because they were so much older than he was. He had nothing in common with them.
He glanced at the woman sitting next to Rollo, the wife Xander had just met early this morning. He had not even been invited to Rollo’s wedding and had only discovered he had two nieces this morning when their traveling party left London for Kent. Frankly, he was surprised that Rollo had even suggested that Xander accompany them to Spring Ridge. Xander would attend the deceased duke’s funeral and leave quickly after its conclusion, while Rollo and his family remained in Kent.
He would tolerate the proceedings and return to his life, one of ease. As a fourth son and gentleman, he had no true profession or responsibilities and spent his days at White’s, reading the newspapers and visiting with friends, as well as dining at the club twice a day. Afternoons were oftentimes spent with his latest mistress, while evenings found him in the gaming hells of London.
The only change to his routine was when the Season began each spring. Xander attended most of its social affairs, dancing with the new girls making their come-outs, squiring some of them to the theater or opera and garden parties. With his limited income, however, he doubted that he would ever wed. His role in Polite Society was to look handsome and be charming at events. He conformed to that role with ease.
“I hope that Stanley is waiting for us at Spring Ridge,” Rollo said.
“I am certain your brother will be there, Brockbank,” Pamela said, reminding Xander that he should start thinking of the couple as His and Her Grace.
It was hard to imagine his brother as the Duke of Brockbank. Their father had been a large, imposing man. Xander took after him, being three inches over six feet and possessing broad shoulders and a muscular frame. Rollo, on the other hand, was much shorter and stout. Any muscle he’d had turned to fat long ago. He supposed Rollo would be trying for an heir now since he only had the two girls. Cecily and Lucy had been very curious about Xander, having never met this uncle before. He was glad his nieces were riding in a different carriage with the servants, because he didn’t really like children. Not that he had been around any, but the thought of children made him uncomfortable.
The vehicle came to a halt, and as a footman opened the door, Xander saw a man waiting for them, quickly realizing it was Stanley. He, too, was short and stout, his face full and ruddy, looking much like Rollo.
Xander allowed his brother and sister-in-law to exit the carriage before he did. Rollo and Stanley were thumping one another on the back in a joyous reunion. He and Pamela stood off to the side as outsiders. Xander had not heard Pamela say more than a handful of words since they’d left town. She seemed truly subservient to her husband.
Stanley turned his attention his younger brother’s way. “Hello, Brother,” the clergyman said. “I am sorry we finally meet up again under such difficult circumstances.”
“Yes, the duke’s death was a tragedy,” he said, always knowing the right thing to say whether he believed it or not. If anything, he knew how to fit into any situation. He was smart and affable and realized also that he was a bit lazy. It was a good thing Rollo was the one to inherit Spring Ridge and all the other entailed properties. Running such an estate had no appeal to Xander. He enjoyed life in town.
The four of them went inside as footmen brought in their luggage. Lorry, the butler, greeted them, fawning over Rollo and Pamela, even as he ignored Xander. The butler had been their father’s closest confidante and friend for decades. He supposed Lorry also thought him a murderer.
A woman moved toward him. “Good morning, Lord Alexander. I am Mrs. Dylan, the housekeeper. I will take you to your room as soon as I see Their Graces settled in theirs. I am told you are staying in what was your old room.”
He smiled. “No need to escort me there, Mrs. Dylan, since I recall exactly where it is.”
He left the group and went to his former bedchamber, noting nothing had changed about it since he had left Spring Ridge ten years ago for university. The same curtains hung at the windows, and the exact same carpet covered the floor. The furniture gleamed, however, and he assumed Mrs. Dylan to be efficient in her duties, keeping the parlor maids in line.
His portmanteau arrived, and Xander unpacked it himself, not having a valet. The allowance provided to fourth sons did not take into account such luxuries. His friend Swanson did have a valet, however, and the servant oftentimes helped Xander in dressing, as well as pressing his shirts and trousers. They also had a woman come in two days a week, one to clean and one to do their laundry. He was already itching to get back to his life in London.
Once he had unpacked, Xander headed down to the drawing room, where he assumed the others would gather. The new duke and duchess were already present, deep in conversation with Stanley.
“Are you settled in?” the duchess asked.
“I am, Your Grace. Thank you for asking.”
She smiled tentatively at him and said, “Your brothers wish to go sailing now. I am trying to dissuade them because these gray skies look as if they may turn to rain.”
Being on the water was the last place Xander ever wanted to be. He avoided it at all costs. His brothers had taken him out one time long ago in a rowboat. He had been six or seven years of age, and Rollo had told him it was time to learn how to swim. His eldest brother had then shoved Xander from the boat and laughed as he helplessly batted the water. He went under several times, swallowing what seemed like buckets of water, fighting to keep his head above the water’s surface as Rollo and Stanley laughed at him.
Finally, Peter had leaned over and grabbed Xander’s collar, hoisting him into the rowboat. Of the three, Peter was the only one who ever really spoke to him. The other two, like their father, ignored him. Even at that young age, Xander believed his two brothers hoped he might drown, and they would be rid of him.
He had not been out on the water since that long-ago day. Not to swim. Not to row a boat. Never to sail. He always found an excuse during a house party not to go to the lake and row a pretty girl about. He would feign business that needed his attention or simply remain on the shore, saying he could not leave the company of all the beautiful women present just to spend time with one of them in a rowboat. Women lapped up those kinds of compliments and it endeared him to the guests.
Still, he saw the worried look on Pamela’s face and said, “You might want to wait until the weather is better. Her Grace is right. The skies look threatening, and there is a strong wind today.”
“The better to sail and challenge ourselves,” Stanley proclaimed. He looked to Pamela. “Don’t worry about us, Your Grace. I will have your husband back to you in time to change for tea this afternoon.”
Rollo and Stanley exited the drawing room, leaving Xander alone with his sister-in-law. She chewed on her bottom lip, and he felt sorry for her.
“I think I shall go up to the nursery and see if the girls are settling in,” she told him, excusing herself, leaving him alone, which was perfectly fine with him.
He made his way to the library and lost himself in a book.
A footman appeared and told him tea was being served in the drawing room. He put aside the book. He had missed the filling, scrumptious teas which had been served at Spring Ridge and hoped they hadn’t changed.
When he arrived in the drawing room, he saw only the duchess present.
“I thought His Grace and Stanley would be back by now.”
Worry filled her face. “No, they have yet to arrive.”
Concern now filled him because he had heard the heavy rain coming down and seen lightning from the window he had sat near as he read.
“Perhaps we should send a footman down to the lake to see how they are,” he suggested.
“Yes, please do so.” She hesitated and then added, “But make sure His Grace knows you were the one who sent him. He thinks me inclined to worry and would be embarrassed to know I sent anyone to check on him.”
“Of course, Your Grace,” he assured her, ringing for the butler.
When Lorry arrived, he said, “I am concerned that my brothers have yet to return. With the weather turning so foul, I would like a footman to check on them. In fact, I believe I will accompany him,” he added spontaneously.
“Oh, thank you,” the duchess said fervently.
Xander left with the butler and a footman volunteered to head to the dock with him. Mrs. Dylan gave them rain gear, and they donned it, going out into what now was a violent storm. Knowing a shortcut to the water, he motioned for the footman to follow him, and they cut through the woods, coming out near the dock. Once they reached the dock, Xander stared out at the lake, seeing nothing. Then he looked down the shoreline and froze.
“Come,” he said urgently, and the footman followed as Xander began to run.
The form was face down, and as he reached it, cold fear coiled in his belly. He turned the shape over and recognized Rollo, his face bloated. He shook his brother in vain. Rollo’s term as the Duke of Brockbank had been an incredibly short one. Word would need to be sent to Peter immediately. His brother would need to resign his military commission and return to Spring Ridge to take up the mantle of Duke of Brockbank.
Glancing at the lake again, Xander caught sight of what he thought might be another body. The small hope which had been within him now faded quickly. He stood and waded into the water, retrieving his other brother’s body, hauling it to shore.
The footman stood agog, and Xander instructed him to bring a wagon down to the shore so the bodies could be brought home.
The servant nodded, still looking dazed as he left.
Xander would have to be the one to tell Pamela that her husband had drowned. Peter would make for a better duke, in Xander’s opinion, and he knew his dutiful brother would take care of Rollo’s family.
Half an hour later, the wagon arrived, driven by Lorry. Several footmen jumped from it and descended the bank to where Xander sat with the dead bodies. A part of the sailboat had washed ashore in the last few minutes, and he figured lightning had struck the craft. He would tell Pamela that neither man suffered—and hoped she believed him.
The bodies were loaded into the wagon, and he joined the butler, who had come to supervise, and now took up the reins.
“Does Her Grace know anything?” he asked.
“No, my lord. It will be your responsibility to tell her.”
“I think we will need to postpone my father’s funeral. Stanley would have performed the church ceremony and graveside services. We will have to find someone to do so for the three of them now.” He paused, feeling awkward in the butler’s company. “His Grace would have liked to share his services with his two beloved sons,” he added.
Lorry nodded brusquely. “I agree, Lord Alexander.”
“I will write to my brother after I have spoken to Her Grace, and inform Peter of these two new deaths.”
“I will see the letter posted as soon as you do, my lord.”
The butler’s tone toward him had softened considerably, and Xander said, “I know you are grief-stricken, Lorry. You and His Grace were close for so many years. It is a good thing you are with us in this tragedy. I know Her Grace will be depending upon you heavily, along with Mrs. Dylan.”
“You must stay, my lord. At least until the new duke arrives. Her Grace is . . . what we might call . . . fragile. She will be in no shape to make any kind of decisions. The running of Spring Ridge will fall to you until the new Duke of Brockbank arrives.”
Xander thought it ironic that the family which had, for the most part, disowned him would now need him to hold it together during this time of sorrow. Still, he did have a sense of honor, despite his reputation as one of London’s leading rakes, and he knew his obligation to his family was strong.
Even though that family had never shown any interest in him or given him any love.
Once they reached the house, he left Lorry to supervise bringing in the bodies and caring for them. He knew it would take too long to make himself presentable, especially when Pamela was worried about her husband and brother-in-law. Going straight to the drawing room in his bedraggled state, he found the duchess sitting by the fire, wringing her hands.
The moment she spied him, she sprang to her feet and began weeping.
Xander went to her and, despite the fact he was soaked to the bone, enveloped her in his arms. “I am very sorry, Your Grace. Neither Rollo nor Stanley made it.”
“But they were both strong swimmers,” she wailed, her tears flowing freely now.
“I know,” he said gently. “Part of the boat washed up on shore. I believe lightning struck it. Most likely, it knocked them unconscious.”
She looked at him with watery eyes. “So, they did not suffer?”
“I doubt they ever awoke,” he assured her, knowing he lied but wanting to ease her pain.
She began wailing loudly and said, “Who will tell our girls?” She looked hopefully to him.
Uneasiness gnawed at him, especially knowing he had no experience with children. Still, he was a gentleman and would do his duty.
“If you wish, I can say something to them tomorrow morning. Let them have their dinner and get a good night’s sleep. Then I will handle it in the morning.”
Collapsing against him, she said over and over, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
Dread filled Xander. He had never spoken to a child before.
And now he would have to tell two little girls they would never see their father again.
We hope you are enjoying the book so far. To continue reading...