Fenella J. Miller

The Duke’s Reform

Prologue

1805

“Your grace, shall I remove the tray?”

Alex glanced over his shoulder at the butler hovering anxiously behind him. “Take it, I’ve no appetite.” He turned back to staring morosely over the park. Once this view had pleased him, now it meant nothing. Without Eleanor and the girls Newcomb was an empty shell, no longer a home.

He rubbed his hand over his jaw. He must look like a brigand. His clothes were in little better state than his person. Grief at the death of his wife and daughters had all but overwhelmed him. He was rudderless— like a ship in a storm buffeted this way and that, unable to find a direction to guide him to safety.

What day was it? How long had it been since his life had been torn apart? Weeks perhaps? Visitors no longer called to leave their cards of sympathy. No doubt someone had dealt with them, written suitable replies. He had not married Eleanor for love, but had come to love her as the years passed. With her at his side he had been happy, able to forget his miserable upbringing and make this mausoleum into a happy place.

All that was over. He would not make the same mistake—far better to remain aloof. He vowed never to love again and to remain safe with his emotions hidden. To experience such pain a second time would surely kill him. Sometime in the future he would have to marry; he must provide an heir, but would make sure he selected a suitable girl and not one who would expect him to love her. All he could offer his next bride was affection, respect and his title.

He would abandon this place, his ancestral seat, and remove to London and crowd his days with pointless activities until he was himself again. Decision made, he strode from the study and shouted for his valet. The sooner he was gone the better. Newcomb held nothing but sadness for him. His loyal staff must come with him to Grosvenor Square—with familiar faces around at least he could be sure his household would run smoothly without his interference.

He yawned and rubbed his unshaved jaw. If he was not the last in line he would get up a regiment of his own and join Wellington in Spain. Fighting for King and country might help to fill the hole the loss of his beloved wife and children had made in his life. 

Chapter One

Grosvenor Square

1810

Alex glared at his lawyer. How dare he have the temerity to interfere with his life? “Dewberry, you forget yourself. When I take a wife is entirely my concern, kindly don’t forget that.”

“Forgive me, your grace, but I owe it to your father to speak plainly. Your dissolute lifestyle these past five years is a matter of grave concern. If you are determined to destroy your health in this way then could I ask you to find yourself a suitable wife and set up your nursery before matters overtake you?”

“I have no wish to marry again, I have nothing to offer apart from my title and wealth. I cannot expect a young woman to accept me as I am.” Dewberry’s look of astonishment almost made him laugh. “The sort of woman who would be satisfied with just that is not someone I would wish to bear my children.”

“There are dozens of eligible young ladies in the marriage mart this year who would think themselves fortunate to be selected by yourself. You are a handsome man, if you will forgive me for saying so, your grace, and in your prime.”

“On the outside perhaps, but I no longer have it in me to be a caring partner. It would be a marriage of convenience; my wife would have to understand it will be a business arrangement. She to provide me with children and I, in return, to keep her in luxury for the rest of her life.”

He yawned, it had been a late night and he had not yet been to bed. The black crow was staring at him expectantly; he’d get no peace until he agreed.

“I shall do as you suggest.”

The elderly lawyer beamed. “I should be happy to arrange for you to meet suitable young ladies, there are several debutantes who would be ideal.”

God’s teeth! “I shall do my own selecting, Dewberry.” He raised one eyebrow. “I do not expect my search to become common gossip.”

The man coloured. “Of course not, your grace. Anything that is said in my chambers remains confidential. However, your appearance at Almacks …”

“Almacks? I’d rather have my teeth pulled them go there. I shall attend a few functions and see for myself what is on offer.”

He strode from the office determined to get away from Town. Whatever Dewberry said matchmaking mamas would soon be on the lookout. He didn’t want to go to Newcomb, he would go to Norfolk and do some shooting. Keep his head down until he was obliged to appear in public when the Season started in March. He’d find a few cronies to accompany him, there were always fellows willing to follow his lead as long as he picked up the bill.

*   *   *

Norfolk

Lady Isobel Drummond stormed out of the library. To be ignored by her parents unless they required her assistance with her many younger siblings was one thing, to be told it was her duty to marry a wealthy man in order to save the family from ruin was quite another.

Gathering her dogs from the kitchens she snatched up her cloak and pushed her feet into the wooden clogs she used for gardening. She had to get out, get away from the house, give herself time to recover her composure. She paused, she would dearly love to run upstairs and change into her habit. A wild gallop across the Fens was exactly what she needed, but that would mean risking meeting her weeping mother and furious father. No, far better to walk.

Othello and Ebony barked and raced around her in circles, as eager as she to be away from Drummond Hall. It was a blustery November day, a hint of snow on the wind that whipped from the sea. Thank God she did not have to make a decision about going to London to join her aunt and uncle for the season until after Christmas.

Deep in contemplation she failed to hear the rattle of a carriage approaching at speed. Ebony barked sharply and she looked round. Instinct made her throw herself prone, her bladder almost emptied as a team of horses, followed by the wheels of the carriage, thundered above her. For a moment she was unable to move, shock rendering her almost insensible. Then righteous indignation flooded through her and she pushed herself onto her knees. She came face-to-face with a veritable giant, and not a particularly friendly one at that.

“Good God, woman, what the hell do you think you’re doing wandering down the middle of highway? I could have killed you.”

Spitting mud in his direction she glared back into his furious face. “Are you insane, sir? This is not a toll road but a country lane. What would you have done if there had been a flock of sheep across your path?”

In answer he reached out and hauled her to her feet then dropping to his knees brushed off the worst of the debris from her person. At every touch she flinched, unused to any gentleman taking such liberties. For some reason her anger dissipated to be replaced by a strange internal heat that followed the path of his fingers. She found herself gazing down at his dark hair which curled intriguingly over the collar of his many caped coat.

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