To Trust a Duke (Soldiers & Soulmates Book 3)
Forced to marry a stranger after one chaste kiss, Lady Ashlyn Clarke spends a single night with her new husband before his regiment ships off to war. She gives birth to a son and loses the boy four years later in a tragic accident, only to learn she's also a war widow. Ashlyn invests her settlement and what's left of her shattered heart in Dunwood Academy, a school for troubled boys. When a devastatingly handsome duke begs her to take on his wayward half-brothers as pupils, Ashlyn is up for the challenge—but finds herself fighting her attraction to the arrogant nobleman.
Colonel Reid Baker arrives home from the Peninsular War and finds himself the Duke of Gilford, assuming his new responsibilities and placing his rebellious half-brothers at a local academy. Knowing he'll need an heir, he sets his sights on the headstrong, confident Lady Dunwood, who claims she'll never wed again. Convincing the dowager countess to marry him becomes Reid's mission, as he jumps every hurdle Ashlyn places in his way—and along that way, the cool-headed former army officer loses his heart to the intelligent beauty.
Will Reid break through the walls Ashlyn has erected around her and teach her to live—and love?
Find the answer in bestselling author Alexa Aston's third book of Soldiers and Soulmates, To Trust a Duke.
Each book in Soldiers and Soulmates is a standalone story that can be enjoyed out of order.
Soldiers and Soulmates
Book #1: To Heal an Earl
Book #2: To Tame a Rogue
Book #3: To Trust a Duke
Book #4: To Save a Love
Book #5: To Win a Widow
Release date: April 9, 2020
Publisher: Dragonblade Publishing, Inc.
Print pages: 229
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
To Trust a Duke (Soldiers & Soulmates Book 3)
Ashlyn Clarke awoke with a start, her cheeks damp with tears. She’d dreamed again of that fateful night.
And how one kiss had changed the course of her life.
Falling asleep would be impossible so she used the bedsheet to dry her face and remained in bed. Her thoughts drifted to five years ago. At eighteen, she’d been on the cusp of her first London Season and already eagerly trying out her dancing skills at the local weekly assembly. A regiment newly stationed in the area had attended the week before and its soldiers and officers were back again. Ashlyn had danced with several of the men, including a young, handsome officer named Daniel Clarke.
After a lively reel, Clarke had fetched them each a cup of punch and then they’d strolled just outside the assembly rooms to catch their breaths and a bit of fresh air. He’d told her of his suspicion that Britain would soon declare war on France and his reluctance to go. He then asked her for a kiss, saying he’d never given one before. Ashlyn hadn’t seen any harm in the gesture and had obliged him. The kiss had been brief and very innocent.
Then her world came crashing down.
Her stepmother, jealous of the close relationship Ashlyn had with her father, appeared from nowhere. She raised such a fuss it brought several others outside, including Ashlyn’s father. Her stepmother insisted marriage was the only thing that would save Ashlyn’s reputation and her father reluctantly agreed.
The banns were read and three weeks later, she pledged herself to Daniel Clarke and then spent one night with him. They’d both fumbled about, trying to consummate the marriage, neither of them knowing what to do. She found the experience painful and unfulfilling, not to mention embarrassing.
The next day, Daniel left with his regiment for additional training while Ashlyn was packed into a carriage. As the vehicle drove away, she saw the triumphant smile on her stepmother’s face. She arrived two days later at Dunbury, home to the Earl of Dunwood, Daniel’s older brother. She explained that she’d married Daniel and he’d sent her to his childhood home as his regiment shipped out. Ashlyn found herself living among strangers—and soon found herself with child.
She smoothed the bedclothes, thoughts of Gregory filling her mind. Her son, now four, was the only good thing to have come from the brief physical encounter with Daniel, who still remained a stranger to her. His letters came sporadically and gave her no sense of who he was as a man. She worried about the day he finally came home to her. She didn’t know his favorite food or color. If he enjoyed sports or music. Where he’d gone to school. She couldn’t even remember whether his eyes were blue or green.
The door opened and Dilly sailed in. Her lady’s maid was usually full of gossip. Ashlyn knew she shouldn’t encourage Dilly but she was lonely. Her in-laws, whom she’d never felt comfortable around, spent a majority of their year in London and were there now for the Season. She never went with them, not feeling right about dancing until the wee hours of the morning while her husband faced danger every day of his life. Because of that, she and Gregory remained at Dunbury and had created a life separate from the others. Their time together, along with the hours she volunteered tutoring local boys at the nearby parsonage, gave her purpose in life.
Ashlyn rose and washed as Dilly set out her clothing for the day. She could tell by the maid’s eyes that she had news to share.
“Lord and Lady Dunwood returned late last evening, my lady,” Dilly began.
Surprise filled her. “They are at Dunbury? Why, the Season is barely a month old.”
“The earl is very sick,” her servant explained. “The pneumonia. His London doctor told him to get back to the country and fresh air.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“All below stairs are saying he’ll die. That he already looked like death warmed over,” Dilly continued. “Lady Dunwood is beside herself. She’s worried the earl will go and then she won’t be in charge of the household anymore. You would be the new countess.”
Ashlyn froze. Lord Dunwood only had one daughter, Eliza, a horribly spoiled brat who was three years older than Gregory and bullied him whenever she could. Ashlyn was always relieved when the Dunwoods left for London and hoped they would stay a good while so that Lady Eliza would be gone from the household. With no son to inherit, though, the earldom would fall to Daniel in the event his brother died. She wondered if her husband would come home from war if that occurred.
Maintaining her composure, she said, “We shouldn’t speak of such matters, Dilly.”
The maid sniffed. “Everyone in the household hopes you’ll become Lady Dunwood soon, my lady. You are kind to all and never have a cross word for anyone. Lady Dunwood constantly causes problems.”
She frowned at Dilly and the servant finally fell silent, putting the finishing touches on Ashlyn’s hair.
“I’ll tidy up here, my lady. You go have your breakfast.”
Making her way downstairs, Ashlyn entered the small dining room and was surprised to find her sister-in-law present.
She took a seat and said, “I’ve just been informed that Lord Dunwood is ill. Please let me know if there’s anything I may do for him. Or you.”
The countess glared at her. “Don’t pretend to be nice to me. I know what you’re thinking. You wish for my husband to die so that yours becomes Dunwood. Where will that leave me?” Bursting into tears, the older woman fled the room.
Her accusation stunned Ashlyn. She’d never thought of Daniel inheriting the title and estate. Even if he did, he would never turn out his sister-in-law and niece. Ashlyn might not know much about her husband of five years but she believed him to be a gentleman in every sense of the word.
She picked at her breakfast and decided to go to the nursery, where Gregory would be finishing his meal. They’d spotted a new group of ducklings on their walk around the lake yesterday and her boy was eager to visit them again.
The nursery was empty when she arrived. Dishes for Gregory and Eliza’s breakfast had yet to be cleared. She went to Gregory’s room and found his nursery governess there picking up his toys.
“If you’re looking for Master Gregory, he went with Lady Eliza and her governess,” the old woman said.
“Where were they going?” Ashlyn didn’t like the idea of Gregory in his cousin’s company.
“I couldn’t say, my lady.”
She left, unhappy with the nursery governess for allowing Gregory to leave her sight. Though Ashlyn had never specifically said her son was not to be in his cousin’s company, everyone in the household knew what a terror Eliza was and how jealous she was of her young cousin.
Downstairs, she asked the footman in the foyer if he’d seen her son.
“Yes, my lady. Master Gregory was with Lady Eliza and her governess. They were going to the kitchen, I believe.”
Making her way there, she found the governess having a cup of tea and a scone, laughing and gossiping with the cook.
“Where is my son?” she demanded.
“Oh, he and Lady Eliza went to play.”
Ashlyn frowned. “Where? And why aren’t you with them?”
“Lady Eliza had a special game she wanted to play with her cousin. I thought they would be fine on their own for a little while. Lady Dunwood encourages her daughter to be independent. Watching after her young cousin encourages this.”
“You’re wrong about that,” she snapped. “Lady Dunwood doesn’t seem to care what her daughter does—or whom she does it to.”
Anger sizzled through her as she left the kitchen. She regretted her indiscreet words but the governess should know better than to leave her charge alone, especially with a boy as young as Gregory. Eliza had started a fire recently. She’d been caught mistreating one of the barn cats. She’d broken a vase and blamed Gregory for it. Ashlyn longed to discipline the girl but had been given strict instructions that she wasn’t to involve herself in any way regarding Eliza.
Returning to the foyer, she enlisted the footman to help her search for the children.
“I’ll take this floor,” she told him. “You may start in the basement.”
“Yes, my lady.”
She worried about the special game Eliza sought to play. The last time the girl had played alone with Gregory, it had been a game of hide and seek—with Eliza locking Gregory in the basement. Eliza had calmly returned to her governess and gone about her lessons while Ashlyn had panicked for several hours when her son couldn’t be found. Eliza finally admitted with a sly smile that Gregory could possibly be in the basement. Ashlyn rushed there and found him, cold and frightened. Of course, nothing had been done to keep Eliza from playing her games.
Gregory had promised her never to go to the basement again, which is why she started her search on this floor. Sending the footman was a precaution.
The children weren’t in either parlor so she went to Dunwood’s study and found the door locked. Moving away, she heard a high-pitched wail and then a scream—from within the room.
Pounding on the door, Ashlyn cried, “Open up at once!”
No one came. She beat on the door again and the butler appeared.
“Find the key for this lock,” she ordered and continued beating the heel of her hands against the wood.
The butler returned with the housekeeper, who pulled a ring from her apron pocket. It held dozens of keys and Ashlyn panicked, knowing it would take forever to figure out which one unlocked this door.
She turned to bang on the door again when she heard the lock thrown. Eliza opened the door, her face red as tears streamed down it. Her eyes widened as she caught sight of Ashlyn.
“I didn’t mean to. He wanted to be a soldier. Like his papa.”
Ashlyn pushed the girl from the doorway and rushed inside. Her footsteps faltered the moment she saw Gregory lying on the ground, blood soaking his chest. A sword rested on the ground beside him.
“Call for the doctor!” she shouted and ran to her son.
Falling to her knees, she lifted his head to her lap and cradled it. Blood bubbled from his lips.
“It hurts, Mama,” he murmured.
Helplessness swept through her, knowing she could do nothing to save him. “I know, my sweet boy. I know. Don’t talk.”
She stroked his hair, choking back sobs, and watched the light fade from his eyes.
“No!” she cried, hugging his still body to hers.
They finally pried her from him an hour later.
Ashlyn wished she were the one dead.
Ashlyn dragged herself from the bed, fighting the urge to return and bury herself in it. Gregory had sat in his grave two weeks now. He wouldn’t be coming back.
Neither would the Earl of Dunwood.
Her brother-in-law succumbed to his pneumonia the day after Gregory’s death. She’d sat in the church with two coffins at the front, one large and one small. The clergyman spent most of his time singing the praises of Dunwood, a man who spent little time at his country estate and probably hadn’t known the names of most of the servants and local people who attended his funeral. Gregory was mentioned only as an afterthought, which hurt Ashlyn more than she could ever have imagined. The light of her life had been snuffed out.
All thanks to Lady Eliza.
The girl claimed they’d been playing at being soldiers. She’d even removed her father’s pistols from their case, though she hadn’t known how to load them. They’d played with the guns until she’d grown bored and then she’d removed the sword which hung from the wall, a weapon of some past family member. Eliza said she’d only held it out to show Gregory and that her cousin had wanted to hold it, charging toward her to take it away. Instead, he’d run straight into it.
Or so Eliza repeated every time she was asked about the so-called accident.
Everyone fawned over the girl and remarked upon the tragedy, believing the lies she told. Only Ashlyn knew the truth. That Eliza had deliberately stabbed her cousin and killed him. The girl and her mother had now gone to London, where they could be surrounded by friends. Ashlyn hadn’t known if she could look upon either of them and was grateful for their departure.
Mark Clarke, a second cousin to Daniel, had come and taken charge of the family. She barely remembered meeting him at the funeral and had taken to her bed once Gregory and his uncle had been buried. Clarke had visited her twice, sharing that he’d written to Daniel, informing him he was the new Earl of Dunwood and requesting he sell his commission and come home to his family.
Today, she roused herself. If Daniel was coming home, she didn’t need to be one of the problems he faced. Already, Dilly had told Ashlyn of whispered rumors that the previous earl had squandered much of the family fortune at the London gaming tables. Daniel might be returning to an impossible situation.
She could help if necessary. Before her wedding five years ago, her father had given Ashlyn a tidy sum, to be spent as she chose. He warned her never to tell her new husband of it since men controlled all property and monies of their wives. He’d given her the name of a solicitor who would see the funds held for her use. It had been her plan to save the funds for Gregory’s education. With her only child gone, she no longer cared about the sum. If the rumors proved true, though, she would give Daniel the money to help the estate survive.
Dilly brought Ashlyn a mug of hot tea, her eyes wide at seeing her mistress up and about.
“Have water brought for a bath,” she instructed the maid.
Ashlyn drank the tea, the liquid warming her. Soon, servants brought buckets of heated water and she sank into the tub. Dilly washed Ashlyn’s hair and scrubbed her thoroughly. For the first time in two weeks, she felt almost human. Inside, though, a vast emptiness lingered. She supposed it would always be with her. A darkness that would never catch the light. Gregory had been her light. Her reason for living. Daniel would never be able to understand that. He’d never laid eyes upon his son. Never known the joy of hearing Gregory speak his first words or seeing that first smile.
It hit her that with Daniel now holding the title, he would want other children. Ashlyn couldn’t bear the thought of another boy replacing Gregory. How could she birth another child? Give her heart away as she had before? Yet she would not be able to deny her husband his rights over her body. The thought of lying with him again turned her stomach.
She pushed the thought aside. One thing at a time.
She found Cousin Mark in the small dining room, still at breakfast, a newspaper spread in front of him. If he was surprised to finally see her up and about, he hid it well.
“Good morning, Lady Dunwood. It’s good to see you.”
Taking a seat, she said, “I want you to know I appreciate you being here. For taking care of everything when I was indisposed.”
“You’ve suffered a great loss, my lady. It’s understandable that it will take time for you to recover.”
Ashlyn never would but she didn’t correct him. He’d been very helpful and there was no need to hurt him.
He rose and retrieved a stack of letters from a nearby table and said, “These have come for you if you’re ready to read them.”
The thought of reading through condolences left her with a sour stomach but it needed to be done.
“Thank you. I’ll read through and answer them today.”
Cousin Mark looked at her with concern. “Take your time. There’s no rush.”
“No. I want to. It will give me something to do.”
She pushed an egg about her plate and finally gave up, taking the letters with her to what had been the Countess of Dunwood’s correspondence room. It was where letters were answered and menus planned. Though the room was now hers, Ashlyn felt like an imposter sitting at the desk.
Each page essentially said the same thing. The writers conveyed their sorrow for her loss. She tired of the same trite phrases written again and again and dreaded the thought of answering each one in a similar manner.
The final letter caught her attention because it looked worn, as if it had traveled a great distance. She opened it and before reading the contents, looked to the bottom of the page. It was signed by a Lieutenant-Colonel Baker. She knew the name from Daniel’s letters. Baker was his commanding officer, a man Daniel had written of frequently.
With dread, her eyes rose to the top of the page.
Dear Mrs. Clarke –
It is with great sorrow that I write to you of the passing of your husband, Lieutenant Daniel Clarke. Lieutenant Clarke had been under my command these past two years and I found him to be a thoughtful, dedicated officer. He will be sorely missed among his men and fellow officers.
He was not lost in battle but grew weak from dysentery, a disease that runs rampant among our troops. I’ve arranged for Lieutenant Clarke’s body to be returned to England so that he may be buried among his family members.
My deepest sympathies go to you and your son, Mrs. Clarke.
Lt. Col. Reid Baker
The letter fell from her hand.
Colonel Reid Baker was finally going home to England after nearly a decade as an officer in the king’s army—all thanks to his childhood friends, Danforth Grayson and Burke Nicholson.
Gray left the Peninsular Wars first, selling his commission to act as guardian to his orphaned nieces and nephew. When his sickly nephew died, Gray became the Earl of Crampton, wedding Lady Charlotte Nott, the children’s governess. Burke had followed Gray home a year later, returning with his right eye missing. He’d taken up a new role as a spy for the War Department, bringing a ring of high-placed government traitors to justice and marrying his fellow spy, Lady Gemma Covington, in the process.
It was hard to imagine his two closest friends as husbands, much less ones who were lucky enough to make love matches. Gray had always been a loner who’d been struck hard by the losses of his men in battle. Thanks to Charlotte, Gray’s emotional wounds had healed, and the couple had one son, as well as custody of Gray’s two nieces. Burke, a third son and notorious womanizer who’d refused to enter the church, had joined Reid and Gray as army officers after they’d left university, thirsting for adventure. In gratitude for Burke exposing the circle of traitors, the crown awarded the extraordinary spy an earldom, and Gemma would give birth to their first child in June.
These men, the brothers of his heart, now lived on their country estates in Kent, close to Reid’s family home, Gillingham. Urgent letters from Burke and Gray finally convinced Reid he needed to come back to England. The pair had visited the Duke of Gilford at his wife’s insistence, and they revealed to Reid he must end his war career and take up his responsibilities to his family because Gilford was now bedridden and had one foot in the grave.
As a marquess and heir apparent to a dukedom, Reid had no need to go to war in the first place. Few men of his rank did. Yet from the time he was young, he’d felt an immense sense of patriotism and the desire to make a difference in the world. When Bonaparte sucked England into his bloody wars, Reid relished the idea of helping defeat the enemy. A natural leader, he needed to fix problems and produce results. His intelligence and confidence had led to him rising to rank of colonel in the decade he served his country.
A part of him, though, had simply wanted to escape. His father had wed again when Reid was eighteen, having been a widower for fifteen years. The new duchess was only a year older than Reid himself and she quickly produced two boys for the duke. By entering the army, he gave his father time to enjoy his second family without a reminder of the first one. And if Reid succumbed in battle, Gilford still had an heir and a spare.
His father rarely wrote to him, only a few times a year, and none during the past two years. The duchess had flooded Reid with letters for the better part of a year, imploring him to return, but he’d ignored them, too caught up in his war duties. He answered tersely, telling Dalinda that he would be home when Bonaparte met defeat and not before. She’d finally quit pestering him.
Then he received lengthy letters from both Gray and Burke, who’d gone to visit his father at Dalinda’s insistence. The Duke of Gilford had been as a father to both boys and the pair had spent several holidays at Gillingham throughout their school and university years. Both described the duke’s faltering health and how Reid was needed at home to manage all the properties and finances. Gray, in particular, urged Reid to hurry if he wanted to see his father alive.
That had spurred him into action. He was already weary of war and ready for the green of England again, not having realized he was homesick after almost ten years abroad. He’d done more than his duty to king and country and now needed to see to his own family. If his father were as critically ill as the others said, then the estate and holdings would have been neglected. Reid’s responsibilities now were to his family. He quickly sold out and caught the first ship home.
He saw the village of Gillbrook appear on the horizon from his spot atop the mail coach, which had proven to be the fastest way to reach Kent once his ship landed on the southern coast of England. His heart beat a bit faster, knowing how close he was to seeing where he’d grown up and eager to know his half-brothers, who were ten and twelve.
Within ten minutes, they’d arrived at Gillbrook. Reid was the lone passenger who disembarked, carrying only his satchel. It contained a spare uniform and a few odds and ends, including his razor and comb. After he alighted, the driver wished him well and took off, keeping to his schedule. Reid’s gaze swept across the familiar buildings. Though the hamlet looked prosperous, with neatly painted buildings and wares on display in shop windows, he saw not a soul walking the streets or emerging from any store or abode. Considering it was a quarter past ten in the morning, surprise filled him as he wondered where everyone might be.
Pushing the mystery aside, he decided to walk to Gillingham, which was a mere two miles from Gillbrook. It felt good to stretch his legs, though he tugged his cloak about him as a cold winter wind cut through him. He set a brisk pace and arrived home shortly before eleven. As he reached the front door, he realized he had no key and hadn’t for years. Playing visitor, he rapped loudly on the door, wondering if he’d even know any of the staff. Surely, Mr. Bellows, the longtime Gilford butler, and Mrs. Paul, the housekeeper, would still be employed. He chuckled, thinking of the aptly named Mrs. Cook, their cook, who’d married Cook, the head gardener. They should also be at Gillingham.
When no one answered, Reid impatiently tried the door and found it unlocked. No footman appeared as he came through the foyer and wandered up the stairs. The drawing room was empty, as were two small parlors and the library. He made his way to his father’s bedchamber and also found no one there. If the duke was so ill, wouldn’t he be in bed? Reid hoped Dalinda hadn’t convinced Gray and Burke to write falsehoods in order to get Reid home. Knowing his friends, he didn’t feel that possible.
He dropped his satchel in his old room and came back downstairs, his stomach rumbling. Going to the kitchen, he saw several servants rushing about as Mrs. Cook issued orders. An incredible amount of food had been prepared and was being placed upon trays. Had he stumbled upon a party?
Reid managed to keep a footman from plowing into him, holding the man about the shoulders and then sliding past him. He went straight to the cook.
“Mrs. Cook, what is going on?”
The kitchen went silent. He felt a dozen pairs of eyes on him.
The Gillingham cook clapped her hands. “Go on! Get about your work!” she demanded, and the staff hustled to do her bidding. She turned back to him, giving him a warm smile, as she bobbed a curtsey.
“It’s nice to see you after all this time, Your Grace.”
Her words struck Reid as a bullet to the heart. There would be only one reason for Mrs. Cook to address him as she had.
The Duke of Gilford was dead.
“My father . . .” he began and then swallowed hard.
Sympathy filled her eyes. “Gone, Your Grace. Two days ago. Everyone in the household and a large portion of Gillbrook is at the funeral now. If you hurry, you might be able to see the burial, then the mourners will come back here.”
Though he still had the dust of the road covering him, Reid hurried from the house. The chapel lay half a mile away, with the graveyard in between. He took off running and only paused when he spied a large group gathered around a gravesite. Slowing to a walk, he joined the mourners at the rear before making his way along the edges until he reached the front, seeing both Gray and Burke there, along with whom he supposed were their wives.
Reverend Jackson acknowledged Reid with a brief nod as he continued reading from the twenty-third Psalm, a favorite of the duke’s. No one else noted his presence, their heads bowed in prayer, except for two boys standing on both sides of his stepmother. Dalinda looked as beautiful as ever in her widow’s weeds, dark brown hair framing her pale skin. Tears streamed down her cheeks, her grief obvious.
Her two sons eyed Reid suspiciously. Neither seemed to grieve in the least. He frowned at them but both stared back defiantly, as if daring him to call them out. Somehow, it didn’t surprise him. Dalinda had always struck him as a bit scattered. She wouldn’t be much of a disciplinarian. If his father had been too ill to deal with his sons, their mother probably ignored any misbehavior.
That would have to change.
The clergyman had gone into a prayer following his reading and now brought it to a close. Those gathered raised their heads and he sensed the shock run through the crowd as they noted his presence. By now, though, Reid’s focus was on his father’s pine coffin. It was hard to believe the man who’d always appeared larger than life had come to an end, his remains residing in the coffin. He took a step forward and placed his palm on its surface, his throat thick with unshed tears.
After a moment, he looked to Reverend Jackson and nodded. The clergyman thanked those present for their attendance and invited everyone back to Gillingham for refreshments.
Reid turned away, his eyes downcast as his hand remained on the casket. He sensed the crowd moving away.
“Goodbye, Father,” he said softly and stepped away.
He saw only his stepmother and half-brothers had stayed behind. The boys openly glared at him now as Dalinda came toward him.
He took her hands. “I’m sorry for your loss, Dalinda.”
She sniffed and more tears cascaded down her cheeks. “He was such a good man. I will miss him very much.”
“We all will.” Reid paused. “I assume these are my half-brothers.” He looked at the pair. “I haven’t seen you since you were in the nursery.”
“We haven’t been in the nursery in years,” Arthur, the older one said snidely. “And we haven’t missed you at all.”
“No, we haven’t,” echoed Harry, the younger one.
He waited a moment, seeing if their mother would correct them, but she kept silent.
“It seems I will be responsible for more than running Gillingham,” he said curtly. “I suppose part of my tasks will be teaching you two some manners.”
Arthur sneered at him as Dalinda said, “Oh, Reid, they are so upset now over their father’s death. There’s no need to discipline them now.”
“I disagree. Good manners are never held to a certain time or place but should always be in evidence. Grief over a parent’s death is no excuse for ill behavior.”
“Why did you have to come back?” Harry demanded. “We were fine without you. Nobody wants you here.”
Reid knelt in order to be eye-level with them. “The duke was my father, too. I spent over twenty years with him before I went to war. I am very sad at his passing—and I’m saddened that my half-brothers are so disrespectful, right at his gravesite.”
“You can’t tell us what to do,” Arthur said stubbornly, his chin jutting out.
He rose and glared down at them. “Actually, Arthur, I can,” he said abruptly. “I am the new Duke of Gilford—and what I say is the law around here. Wipe the sneers off your faces. If you can’t look sad, then put a bland expression on your faces. Each of you take one of your mother’s arms and we shall return to the house. Many people there wish to offer all of us their condolences. Accept their words graciously and thank them.
“Is that understood?”
His strident tone conveyed his immense displeasure with them. Both boys cowed. But they did step to their mother’s sides and helped her back to the house without a word. She started to speak but his look cut her off. He would need to talk with her at length later regarding discipline.
Once they arrived back at the house, Reid separated from them. He made sure to circulate throughout the drawing room, speaking to everyone briefly and thanking each for their attendance. He received condolences from the town mayor down to the footmen who waited upon the group.
One woman whom he wasn’t acquainted with introduced herself. She emitted a sense of tremendous confidence, though she was almost a foot shorter than he was. Her lively, amethyst eyes were the most unusual he’d ever encountered and only added to her great beauty. Reid felt drawn to her in a way he couldn’t describe.
“I am Lady Dunwood, Your Grace. New to the neighborhood these past three years but very sad to see your father go. The duke was a kind, gracious man. He will be sorely missed for his wit and humility.”
“Thank you, Lady Dunwood. Father will always be the best man I know, no matter how many more gentlemen I encounter during my lifetime.”
He knew of no Lord Dunwood in the area but realized he’d been away nearly ten years. Before he could ask her about her family and where she lived, the local doctor and his wife interrupted and he spoke with them. By the time he finished accepting their condolences, Lady Dunwood had disappeared from his elbow. He searched the room and determined she was gone.
He finally had time to speak to his friends. Both Burke and Gray gave him strong handshakes and bear hugs, and he turned to be introduced to their wives.
“Though we’ve never met, I feel as if I already know you both,” Reid told them. “Your husbands have written glowingly about you.”
“Are you certain they wrote the letters themselves, Your Grace? Gemma and I might have dictated what they were to write so you would have a delightful impression of us. I’m Charlotte, by the way.” She offered Reid her hand and he kissed it, already taken with Gray’s countess.
“Burke’s handwriting leaves much to be desired,” the other wife said. “I’m Gemma and very pleased to meet you, Your Grace.”
He kissed her hand and proclaimed, “No, none of that. You are Gemma and Charlotte and I am Reid. I am also the man who knows more about these two scoundrels than they ever could remember. If you want to know who your husbands truly are, I am more than happy to be at your service and reveal their pasts.”
“Oh, I knew I would like you,” Charlotte proclaimed, sliding her arm through his.
“Get your own Miss Nott,” Gray proclaimed, pulling his wife back to his side and laughing good-naturedly.
Reid knew Gray called Charlotte by her governess name at times. He could see by the glow in their eyes that the couple was deeply in love. The same held for Burke, whose arm had slid around his wife’s waist. The look that passed between them almost knocked the breath from Reid, so potent with love—and desire.
“I’m sorry we’re meeting under such sad circumstances,” he told them. “Once things have calmed down and I have a better idea of my new responsibilities, I hope the four of you will return to Gillingham for a week or so in order for us to become better acquainted.”
“That would be lovely,” Gemma said. “Though you shouldn’t wait too long, Reid.” She patted her belly. “Our baby will arrive in late June.”
“I’ll make it soon, Gemma.” He looked to Charlotte. “And bring young Viscount Warren and the girls when you come.”
They spoke a few more minutes and then the two couples departed to return to their own estates, making them the last of the mourners to leave. Reid found himself tired and still hungry since he hadn’t bothered eating anything from the trays that had circulated through the crowd.
Dalinda came to him and immediately said, “They are good boys, Reid. Merely high-spirited.”
“They were both rude and incredibly obnoxious,” he declared. “There’s no excuse for such ill behavior. Father would be appalled.”
“Well, he wasn’t around to guide them the last two years,” she said, anger sparking in her eyes.
Pity filled him, knowing she’d lost her husband, one she seemed to have truly loved.
“I know you’ve done the best you could, Dalinda, especially with Father being so ill. I’m sorry it took me as long as it did to end my service to the crown and return home. I’m here now and ready to help you in rearing the boys. They need a mother’s love but a firm, male hand will also be important.”
“I won’t have you beat them, Reid,” she declared. “They are just boys.”
“They are—but they’re closer to being men than you’d care to admit. Are they at Eton together? Or somewhere else? Tell me a little of their schooling and background. I want to get to know them better, not only as their guardian but as family.”
“Dalinda, is something wrong?”
She began wringing her hands. “They were at school. In fact, they’ve been to three schools. No, four.”
Concern filled him. “Why so many? Did they have a difficult time adjusting to being away from home? Some boys do, you know.”
“No, they . . . well, they . . .”
“Spit it out, Woman!”
“They’ve been asked to leave every school they’ve attended,” Dalinda wailed. “You’ve got to help them, Reid. I don’t know what to do with them. They’re unruly. I cannot control them any longer. It’s hopeless. You’re going to have to handle them now because I don’t know how.”
It was not the homecoming Reid had hoped for.
Ashlyn readied herself for the day. She pulled her hair into its usual chignon, an easy style for her to manage on her own. When she’d left Dunbury, she hadn’t taken Dilly with her, not wanting any reminders of her time there. Though Mark Clarke, the new Earl of Dunwood, offered Ashlyn the dower’s house, she’d refused. He’d settled a nice sum upon her for giving up the residence. That, along with what her father had secretly provided, proved enough for Ashlyn to start her own school. Dunwood Academy now operated from a rented property in Kent, with four instructors and between ten and twelve students in attendance at any given time.
She’d been drawn to establishing a school due to her love for her son and wanting to find a way to honor Gregory. Knowing she could never give her heart again as she had to her boy, she’d decided never to wed. Instead, she made herself useful in the lives of other boys, troubled or lonely ones who needed special attention. That’s why she enrolled only a select few so that each pupil would have ample care, both academically and emotionally. While most of her students’ parents paid their enrollment and boarding fees, one pupil was the recipient of the Gregory Clarke scholarship. Ashlyn liked to think Gregory would be proud of what she and her staff accomplished each day with the pupils in their charge.
She arrived in the large dining room and saw most of her tutors going through the buffet Mrs. Clayton had set up. Ashlyn employed no butler or footmen and so the housekeeper was responsible for placing Mrs. George’s dishes out for each meal. Ashlyn thought it more collegial for her tutors and pupils to serve themselves. She met with her staff each morning during this first meal so they could discuss their students and the various upcoming lessons. After half an hour, the instructors left to prepare for the day and she dined with the boys.
Taking her place at the head of the table, Mrs. Clayton brought a cup of tea.
“Good morning, Lady Dunwood,” the housekeeper said, her face ever cheery as she set the cup down. “Two sugars and cream, just as you prefer.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Clayton. Is Mrs. George preparing the baked chicken later today?”
“She is, my lady.”
“Good. I so enjoyed the spices she used last time.”
The four men had finished filling their plates and taken a spot. Mr. Selleck began, noting which literature would be studied this week and that the language focus would be on Latin and French. Mr. Peterson spoke next. The bald, rotund man was the opposite of the tall and thin Selleck and taught arithmetic, logic, and economics.
Short and stout Mr. Butler followed, noting his emphasis would be on famous philosophers during his ancient history lessons this week. It would go hand-in-hand with the lectures he intended to give on religion.
Finally, the drawing master, Mr. Phillips, spoke his piece. The tall, elegant instructor also taught the boys how to play various musical instruments and helped Ashlyn with dancing lessons, as well. The pair also worked with each student individually on social etiquette and conversation. She believed being able to speak comfortably on a variety of subjects would help her boys attain success in their future schooling and later in life.
“It sounds as if everyone has a busy week planned,” she noted. “I did want to mention that we are still at ten students since the Easton boys left. If you know of any worthwhile pupils that could assume their places, please let me know. If that’s all, I will see you later in the day.”
Ashlyn had a habit of dropping in on classes. She wanted to keep not only the boys but their tutors on their toes. She also enjoyed taking part in the lessons and seeing the boys’ progress firsthand.
The men left and Betty and Louise, the two maids, quickly cleared their dishes away as Mrs. Clayton and Mrs. George brought in chafing dishes for the next round. One of the things which had surprised Ashlyn most was how much growing boys ate. Her pupils ranged from seven to thirteen and though they were different ages and sizes, every one of them possessed a voracious appetite.
Edward, the scholarship student, indicated for her to go first through the line and she thanked him. She was pleased he was becoming more comfortable at the academy. The son of a local farmer, the side of his face was marred by a large purple birthmark. Edward’s father had shared with Ashlyn how his son had been teased unmercifully his entire life and stared at by strangers, both young and old. Fortunately, she had created an atmosphere of acceptance at Dunwood Academy and believed her boys had accepted Edward—and that Edward was slowly coming around from his shyness. He was brilliant at both mathematics and music and she’d witnessed him tutor several boys in complicated equations, drilling down and explaining to them in simple, everyday language. She had high hopes of him winning a spot at Eton or another strong public school and going from there to university. Her secret wish was that he might one day return to Dunwood Academy as an instructor.
As they all gathered around the table, she made sure the maids had placed a penny beside the silverware for each boy. Seeing they all had one, she looked to the far end of the table.
“Peter, why don’t you start us off and give the penny for your thoughts?”
Ashlyn had begun the practice at breakfast each morning, having each boy share whatever he wished without judgment. Once each boy had spent his penny and contributed to the discussion, the conversation was opened for anyone to speak. This way, everyone had a say and no one was left out. It also kept certain boys from dominating the conversation. They would think carefully before spending their penny, not wanting to be shut out from speaking.
The shy student grinned and tossed his penny into the jar in the center of the table. Cheers broke out since Peter sat the furthest away from the jar. Though no penalty occurred if a boy’s toss missed, an extra biscuit at teatime was awarded to those whose penny made it inside the jar. Ashlyn had the students rotate on a daily basis so no one had an unfair advantage by always claiming the closest seats to the jar.
“I spent time with Mr. Jarrett yesterday in the stables caring for Maymorn. I got to feel her belly and the kicks from the foal inside her.”
She was pleased Peter had put two complete sentences together. When he’d arrived a month ago, he was so shy that he couldn’t string two words together.
From there, the boys spoke up on their own. William told of a passage he’d translated and how much easier Latin seemed to him now that he was at Dunwood Academy. She was pleased he shared the tidbit without his usual arrogance and bragging. Samuel, who was very intelligent but liked to be left to himself, spoke about his fencing lesson yesterday. The boys listened attentively to one another as they ate and once each coin had been spent, they broke into smaller conversations. She looked at her pupils with pride, knowing each boy was progressing in different ways.
The clock chimed and they looked to her expectantly.
“I hope that you enjoy a marvelous day and have good things to share with one another tomorrow morning—if not before. You’re dismissed.”
Each boy pushed back his chair and returned it to its place before picking up the used dishes and silverware and returning them to a cart Mrs. George had wheeled out. Ashlyn believed it important that her boys be courteous to all. Since she kept a minimum of servants, the boys contributed in small ways to the household. Collecting their dishes was one of them.
As they filed out, telling her goodbye, Mrs. Clayton approached her.
“You have a visitor, Lady Dunwood.”
“I wasn’t expecting anyone,” she said, frowning. “I have bookkeeping to attend to.”
“It’s the Duke of Gilford, my lady. He said it’s most urgent. I took him to your study and he awaits you there.”
Ashlyn felt color flood her face. “Very well. Thank you, Mrs. Clayton.”
She left the room and hesitated a moment. She longed to check her appearance in a mirror but refused to go upstairs to do so. Meeting the new duke at his father’s funeral a few days earlier had left quite an impression on her. Immediately, she’d been attracted to his height. His good looks. The thick, dark brown hair and eyes the color of melted chocolate.
And that bloody uniform.
It’s what had led her to dance with Daniel. He’d looked so handsome in his regimental colors. Look where that had gotten her. A forced marriage of one night. Years of loneliness living among strangers. Her dead boy.
No, Ashlyn would have to be on guard around the Duke of Gilford. She would see what he wanted and get rid of him quickly. She didn’t need any disruptions in her life. It ran on an even keel. No ups. No downs. Just the way she preferred things.
She arrived at her study. The door was already open. Gilford, still wearing his officer’s uniform, stood looking out a window, his hands clasped behind his back. Ashlyn swallowed and entered the room.
“How may I help you, Your Grace?”
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