Reforming the Rigid Duke – Abby Ayles

“Marjorie? Marjorie, where are you?” Peeking her head out from behind the rose hedges where she was hiding, Marjorie Reeves grinned at her young cousin, Susan Langdon. “I’m here, darling!” she called, waving her cousin over to her hiding spot. Susan furrowed her pretty brown eyes as she hurried around the hedge. “What in the world are you doing?” she asked, slipping behind the bushes to join Marjorie on the stone bench she’d been perched on for the past hour. “I’ve just been reading,” Marjorie explained, showing Susan the novel that she’d brought out with her from the library. “I’ve found that this particular spot is hidden just enough for me to read undisturbed if I wish to. Why were you looking for me?” “I’ve just heard that the dowager duchess is coming to visit, and I thought I’d warn you before the house becomes overwhelmed with matronly enthusiasm,” Susan said with a grin. Marjorie couldn’t help the little giggle that slipped past her lips. “Oh, goodness, Mother will be delighted to have her friend to visit, though it feels as though hardly a day goes by that they aren’t in each other’s company.” Susan nodded. “That is true. I must admit, though, while I find the dowager duchess to be a very amicable lady, her presence can prove … somewhat overwhelming.” “Oh, that’s nonsense,” Marjorie cheerfully replied with a wave of her hand. “Granted, she’s boisterous, but I don’t think she ever truly goes too far. Well … except in regard to her son.

” “That is certainly true,” Susan readily agreed. Betty Hardy, the dowager duchess of Sedgewick, was an intelligent, determined woman, whose greatest desire in life appeared to be securing a wife for her elusive son. The dowager lived near Marjorie’s family home, having moved to London several years ago. She and Marjorie’s mother, the Viscountess Lockhart, had become fast friends and spent much of their time together. She liked the dowager very much, and enjoyed her company, but it hadn’t escaped her notice that the woman appeared particularly keen on bringing up the subject of her son whenever Marjorie was around. They could hardly even be considered hints, as the dowager was not always subtle when it came to speaking of her son, the Duke of Sedgewick. “Some days she makes it so obvious she wishes to make a match between her son and me, that I’m tempted to claim a sudden deep interest in religion, so I may claim a vow of celibacy,” Marjorie joked. Susan laughed. “Oh, the poor woman wouldn’t be deterred. She would simply attempt to convince you that her son’s merits are far superior to even God’s.

” “I’m afraid you might be right,” Marjorie snorted. “He does sound like a nice gentleman,” Susan offered, as if to try and convince Marjorie to consider the man as a serious suitor. “From everything the dowager has told us, he would likely make a very agreeable husband.” Marjorie rolled her eyes as she laughed. “He sounds boring. I doubt there’s a woman alive who could successfully charm him.” Isaac Hardy, the Duke of Sedgewick, was rumored to be a very handsome man, especially if his mother was to be believed. However, he was rarely seen off his estate, and the dowager even struggled to draw him into town. She described him as serious, dependable, and attentive to the business matters that kept his family wealthy. However, while the dowager might believe such characteristics to be desirable and noteworthy in a prospective husband, Marjorie always paid closer attention to what his mother didn’t say about him.

She never spoke of his pursuits beyond his business dealings. She never mentioned him attending any balls or social gatherings of any kind. Marjorie couldn’t imagine the dowager would leave any of that out if her goal were to endear the duke to her. So, Bridget concluded that his mother’s omission of such information could only mean that the duke didn’t participate in such frivolities. A man who dedicated so much of his time to work and so little to entertainment, could never hold Marjorie’s interest, of that she was certain. “You are far too judgmental of the poor man,” Susan insisted. “You cannot know he’s boring without meeting him.” “I disagree,” Marjorie replied. “If his own mother has nothing interesting to say about him, there really is no hope that he holds any redeemable qualities that would make him engaging enough to be around for any length of time.” “I’m sure that’s not true.

” Susan could be as stubborn in her opinions as Marjorie herself. “Even if he isn’t usually entertaining, I’m sure being around someone such as yourself at a social event would bring out his fun-loving side.” Marjorie arched her brow. “Oh? You really think so, do you?” Susan blinked at her, her brow furrowing in growing confusion. “Yes … I do.” Though only a year apart in age, Marjorie often felt as though Susan was far more naïve about the world than herself. It wasn’t that Marjorie was cynical, or viewed things in a negative way, but she was more of a realist and didn’t place expectations on people who didn’t warrant them. Susan and Marjorie were not just close in age, but in appearance too. They were often told they could practically be twins, save for the slightly darker shade of Susan’s red hair and her brown eyes, which differed from Marjorie’s hazel gaze. Besides their looks, however, Marjorie and Susan were the best of friends, and had been their whole lives.

Marjorie shared everything with her cousin. Every secret and every dream she held, Susan kept in confidence, and vice versa. There was no one in the world Marjorie trusted more, and their shared hardships over the years had only brought them closer together. “I propose a wager,” Marjorie said, delighting in the fact she was clearly catching her dear cousin off guard. “A wager? What do you mean?” Marjorie held up her finger. “Should we ever attend a ball where the duke is present, I would wager he doesn’t dance once with any eligible ladies.” Susan’s eyes lit up with understanding. “Ah! I see. Well, I’ll wager just the opposite. I’ll wager you can steal two dances with him.

” “Me?” Marjorie giggled. “Why me specifically?” “You are easily the most engaging and entertaining person I know,” Susan replied. “If you can’t get him to dance, I don’t believe there is anybody in all of London who can.” Marjorie grinned. “Ah, I see. Well, you make a very excellent point, my dear. However, I fear you are far too optimistic about the stoic Lord Sedgewick. I doubt even my considerable allure could sway him. Besides, I’ve much better things to do than charm some snobbish duke.” “So, you won’t even attempt it?” Susan teased.

“Are you perhaps too afraid he will fall for you, despite what you believe, and you will lose the wager?” “Of course not,” Marjorie scoffed. “I simply don’t wish to waste my time on such a dullard. There are so many more exciting people to spend my time with.” “Are you refusing the wager then? It was your idea, cousin.” “Oh, I will take on the wager if you’re game for it. Just to prove once and for all that Lord Sedgewick is just as boring a man as I believe him to be.” Susan sighed. “My dear cousin, you are setting yourself up for failure, and it will be so entertaining when you are proven wrong.” Marjorie opened her mouth to respond, but at that moment a maid rounded the tall hedges, her eyes widening with surprise when she found the two women sitting before her. “Oh! Lady Marjorie.

Miss Susan … we’ve been looking for you. The viscountess is requesting your presence in the parlor. The dowager duchess has arrived.” Marjorie offered the maid a smile. “I see. Thank you. We’ll be along directly.” The maid curtsied and turned to leave them. Marjorie pushed to her feet and looked down at her cousin. “Shall we?” Susan nodded and stood as well.

They began to walk back around the hedge and through the garden. Marjorie walked slower than usual, so Susan could keep up with her. Her young cousin walked with a considerable limp, an unfortunate reminder of the terrible fever that had struck her when she was fifteen. Marjorie had grown ill with the same fever, and it had carried off both of Susan’s parents. Guilt twisted Marjorie’s belly as her cousin tried to walk faster. She’d never understood why sweet Susan would be subject to such lingering suffering, when Marjorie herself had survived the fever, with no enduring consequences. Susan never appeared to let her struggles bother her, however. She was quieter than she’d once been, but she was still sweet, and Marjorie adored her. They made their way into the manor, and when they reached the parlor, they found the viscountess and dowager duchess already deep in conversation. It took the women a moment to notice that Marjorie and Susan had even entered the room.

Marjorie’s mother, Dorothy, was the first to glance up and notice the girls. “Oh! My dears, I’m so glad you could join us.” “Did we have a choice, Mother?” Marjorie teased as she and Susan crossed the room to sit with them. The dowager duchess looked up at her with a wide grin. “Oh, of course my dear,” she replied. “You always have a choice … but it is wise of you to please your dear mother.” All four women shared a laugh, and Marjorie’s eyes swept subtly over the dowager. She was a tall and sturdy woman, who commanded any room she entered, but there was still a delicate elegance to her that Marjorie knew was practically bred into the ladies of the upper-class. “How are you, your Grace?” Marjorie asked, resting her hands in her lap. “Quite well,” the dowager answered.

“I received a letter from my dear Isaac yesterday. I was just telling your mother about it.” That didn’t take her long at all. She’s getting bolder with her not-so-subtle hints. “Oh?” Marjorie replied, keeping her tone neutral but polite. “What did his Grace have to say?” “He was bringing me up-to-date with his latest business ventures,” the dowager explained, her expression lighting up. “He is so incredibly intelligent. Have I told you how intelligent he is, Marjorie? You two would have the most engaging conversations, I’m sure.” “I’ve no doubt, your Grace,” Marjorie nodded as Susan fought not to let her amusement show. Marjorie elbowed her cousin in her side when a snort slipped past Susan’s lips.

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