Schooling the Duke – Christi Caldwell

“Rowena, the Duke of Hampstead is here… to see you.” Kneeling in the gardens, with the sun burning down on her neck, Miss Rowena Endicott froze. She stared unblinkingly at the pink freesia. The strong scent of those vibrant buds any other time would have been a soothing balm. Not, however, in this instance. The duke was here to see her? It didn’t make any sense. The Duke of Hampstead looked through her at Sunday sermons and hadn’t even once since Rowena’s family moved here, bothered with so much as a “hello.” Why would he be here—? Then the truth slammed into her. Graham. Graham Linford, the duke’s second son whom she had fallen hopelessly and helplessly in love with, who’d gone off to fight Boney’s forces. Her stomach turned over itself. He is dead… A piteous moan spilled from her lips. “Rowena?” her youngest sister, Blanche, whispered. With fingers that shook, Rowena pulled a tenacious weed from the base of the flowering plant and tossed it atop the growing collection of debris. Do not look at her… if I do not look, she’ll go away, and then this moment will not be real… Small fingers tugged at the fabric of Rowena’s sleeve.

“Mama and Papa said you must come inside now.” Why else would the duke be here? Even if her stepfather was the vicar of the duke’s parish, there was no reason for a nobleman one step below royalty to pay her a visit. Except for one: Graham. Blanche gave another tug. “Rowena, are you listening to me?” “I heard you,” she said sharply, and her sister recoiled. Even through the panic and terror and agony roiling in Rowena’s breast, guilt assailed her. “Oh, poppet,” she said softly, gathering the seven-year-old girl in her arms. Born to a different father, her bond and love for this girl was no less than if had all their blood been shared. “I’m sorry. I”—had no reason to give to a small child to explain this crushing pain and fear.

Blanche and her other sister, Bianca, were two innocent souls in a world marred by scandal and sin—as Rowena’s past was testament to. Blanche’s lower lip trembled. “Are you s-scared? Because Mama and Papa seem scared.” Yes, because their family dwelled on lies made of shifting sands, where discovery of Mother’s past loomed, a danger that could see them all ruined. All secrets her young sisters didn’t know, and would not ever know. “If you’re scared, then I’m scared, so please don’t be.” At that quavering whisper, Rowena brushed a hand over her cheek and mustered a false smile. “Tsk, tsk. You know I’m not afraid of anything.” It was just another lie, only this one to protect her siblings.

She puffed out her chest and spoke in deep tones. “I am Queen of the Gardens.” Her sister giggled. “Mistress of the Pen.” “Lady of the Locke,” she finished the saying she always gave whenever Blanche and Bianca worried. Rowena tucked several brown strands behind her sister’s ear. “It will be fine.” She spoke those words as an assurance for herself as much as Blanche. Except… it wouldn’t. Graham.

Again, she focused on breathing while terror swamped her senses. I will come back for you… Make you my wife… Not even God himself could keep us apart… “Roweeeena.” Both sisters looked up as Bianca came hurtling forward. Her flame-red hair hung in messy curls down her back. “Mama and Papa said it is very important. They said you need to come now.” It was time. These handful of minutes she’d allowed herself to pretend and keep reality at bay would not erase the duke’s presence—or worse, what actually brought him here. Rising to her feet, a lone freesia still clutched in her left hand, Rowena trudged through the gardens, along the graveled path, to the modest cottage they called home. The door opened, and her stepfather froze.

All the color leeched from his cheeks. “F-Father,” she managed to squeeze out, the one word emerging on a weak croak. One of her mother’s many lovers, the Vicar Tobias Endicott had been the only man to offer Mother more… respectability and a name… and because of it, the same gift given to Rowena, too. He held her gaze a moment and the flash of regret and sorrow there ratcheted up the pressure weighing on her chest. How am I standing? How am I standing, when I know the duke has no reason to visit me, other than Graham? “Rowena,” her stepfather whispered, averting his gaze from her own. “I’m so sorry. I…” Tears filled his eyes. “Forgive me.” Yanking off his spectacles, he dusted the back of his hand over his face and stalked off. Numb from the inside out, Rowena forced her legs into movement, entering through the small doorway.

The duke would have had to duck on his way through as Graham had every time he paid her a visit. It was a silly thing to note, and yet, silly kept her sane. It kept her from spiraling out of control into a place of grief and loss. “M-Mama?” she called into the quiet, as she shucked off her dirt-stained apron. Shifting the freesia in her fingers, she hung up the garment. “M-Mama?” she tried again. Though it was foolish to go a-calling when there were but three bedrooms and two parlors. “Here.” The steadiness of her mother’s reply from within the only true home they’d ever known somehow steadied her. It enabled Rowena to continue walking to that room for this hated, unwanted meeting.

She stopped at the threshold. Alongside her mother, the duke stood, his body stiffly held. Several inches past six feet, and powerful of frame, he exuded power and arrogance. His noble roots were further reflected in his aquiline nose, wide, firm jaw—and now, his pursed mouth. He’d the look of a man who’d sucked a lemon, not a man who came to upend her world with grief that would destroy her forever. Rowena wetted her lips. “Y-Your Grace.” She sank into a belated, awkward curtsy. He gave not even a hint that he’d heard her wobbly greeting. “Rowena,” her mother began, studiously avoiding her eyes.

Just like Papa. “Will you close the door?” Feeling much like a person living outside her body and watching the actions of another, Rowena complied. “My son is dead,” the Duke of Hampstead said without preamble. A keening cry, a tortured sound better suited to a wild animal sailed past her lips. Rowena’s legs gave out from under her, and she sank to the floor, rocking back and forth. NoNoNoNoNo. She clamped her hands over her ears, attempting to blot out her mother’s urgings. “My heir, Miss Endicott,” the duke said impatiently, his sharp tones cutting across her misery. Rowena yanked her head up and blinked wildly. His heir.

Not Graham. Graham’s brother. “The marquess,” she whispered, needing a confirmation anyway. The older man gave a curt nod. Thank God. On the heel of that was guilt at the relief that brought forth that silent prayer in the face of the duke’s loss. Except, jade green eyes—the color a near-identical hue to Graham’s—gave no hint of anything but cool indifference. Her legs still limp from the shock of his announcement, and eventual relief, Rowena shoved to her feet. “I’ll not waste anymore time here than I already have, Miss Bryant.” She froze.

Miss Bryant? Rowena gave her clouded mind a shake, and yet the cobwebs remained. The surname she’d been born with, that she’d been instructed to never again use or respond to, the moment her mother had wed Vicar Endicott. Unease skittered along her spine, and she cast a searching look over at her mother. Her mother buried her hands in her palms and wept. Oh, my God. He knows. Of course, it wouldn’t take much for a duke to look into the true origins of his vicar’s marriage from eight years ago. Yet, why should he have? There’d been no reason to question or wonder. “Graham will someday be a duke, Miss Endicott,” His Grace said matter-of-factly, his condescending gaze burning her flesh. “It was one thing for him to bed a village girl…” Mortified heat stained her entire body that he should know about those shared, stolen moments.

“But certainly you see that as my heir he can never wed a baseborn miss.” Rowena flinched. “You’re worse than baseborn”—he flicked a derisive gaze over her once more—“you’re a whore’s daughter.” The air lodged painfully in her lungs, and she tried to force it out. She dimly registered the piteous weeping of her mother. Their secret had been discovered. Not only her family’s but also the pledge Graham had made to her before he’d gone off to fight… I will wed you, Rowena Endicott… She slid into the folds of the nearest seat. “I love him,” she said, proud of the evenness of that delivery. The duke snapped his eyebrows into a steely silver line. “I expect you love him even more now that he’ll be a duke.

” She gave her head a dizzying shake. “No. It never mattered. It doesn’t matter,” she rambled, needing him to understand. “I love—” He held up a commanding hand, silencing her. “Graham will return soon, and when he does, I want you gone.” A dull humming filled her ears. “I’m not leaving.” Did that bold challenge belong to her? Surprise lit the duke’s eyes, and then was gone, masked with his icy disdain. “But you see, you will, Miss Bryant.

” He took a step toward her. “Because if you do not leave, I’ll have your father tossed from his position as vicar and your mother’s reputation known in every circle and county.” With every vile threat, panic grew and grew until she threatened to crumple under the weight of it. Rowena looked helplessly to her mother. All that would remain after this visit was Rowena… and her family. Her mother loved her too much to make this sacrifice… even if it would save Blanche and Bianca, whose very names meant purity. Except… Mother hugged herself and looked away. Rowena sucked in a breath as a slow, dreadful understanding slithered around her mind. Two years earlier, when her family’s cottage had been struck by lightning and the thatched roof caught fire, Rowena had been besieged by nightmares. The terror would come, fleeting and unexpected as that summer storm, and through it, Graham had always been there.

When the fear had threatened to cripple her, he’d taken her in his arms, playing games to distract her from the terror until it dissipated. But there was no Graham here. He is gone in every possible way, to me. And now as evidenced by her mother’s silence and father’s absence, there was not even a parent to help her. “If you remain here in wait for my son, I promise all will know your sisters as a whore’s daughters. No future will await any of you.” Did he sense her wavering? She wanted to tell him to go to hell. To send him to the devil and with directions how to get there. She wanted to rail at her mother and father for being cowards, complicit in their silence. And yet… she glanced over to the lead windowpanes, to where her sisters played outside.

Their laughter carried from the gardens and pealed around the room. Rowena looked to her mother and their gazes caught. Her mother’s blue eyes filled with tears, pouring out her regret and sorrow. “I am so sorry,” Mama mouthed. Those four, silently spoken words, speaking more plainly than had they been shouted into existence: her mother had chosen to save her youngest children. Rowena choked back the sting of resentment, rage, and hurt. What should her parents do? Sacrifice their legitimate children because Rowena, like the strumpet the duke took her for, had given herself to Graham Linford? “What would you have me do?” Rowena’s hollow question, came from a place of logic, and love for the two little girls who deserved far more from life. “If you’ll excuse us?” the duke directed that to her mother, and for a moment Rowena believed there was far more courage and strength in her than she’d ever credited. But then, eyes averted, Mama fled, closing the door behind her, leaving Rowena alone with the dragon. The duke reached inside his jacket and fished out a page.

“You’ll take employment elsewhere.” “Employment?” she parroted back, automatically taking the sheet and reading words about her and for her but yet so foreign she couldn’t make sense of them. “I don’t want you to return, Miss Bryant. The moment you do, I’ll see you not only out of this honorable employment but any future posts. You won’t find work except the kind your mother knew in London—on your back.” His Grace withdrew his gold watchfob and consulted the timepiece. She crushed the page in her hands. “Graham loves me.” Surely his son’s happiness should mean something. And yet, he was a nobleman who’d come here, the day his eldest son died, with the express intention of ridding the village of her.

“Love?” The duke scoffed. “My son loved tupping you and not much more.” His jibe struck like a lance to her heart. Rowena steeled her jaw and glared at him in defiance. “If you believed that, you’d not send me away. It wouldn’t matter if he returned and found me still here.” His nostrils flared. “Regardless, the decision is yours. Remain and find your kin homeless without a hope for another vicarship for your father, or take employment elsewhere.” Rowena’s eyes slid involuntarily to that page.

The inked words ran together in her mind. Mrs. Belden’s Finishing School… Servant… “I see that we understand one another. You’ll depart within the hour.” An hour? Panic swelled once more. “My carriage will see you delivered.” And with that, he left. Rowena remained frozen to her seat, with the clock ticking loudly in her ears. In the distance, her sisters’ laughter mingled with the cacophony in her mind, punctuated by the click of the front door closing as the duke took his leave. Leave.

He’d send her away, from her family, the only family she’d ever known, and more—away from Graham. A tear slipped down her cheek, followed by another and another. The front door opened, and for a sliver of a moment, hope reared that her mother and father would not make her to do this. They will fight for me and prove I matter as much as Blanche and Bianca. The soft pitter of a child’s footsteps killed that foolish yearning. Blanche filled the doorway. “He’s gone…” Her smile dipped. “What is it?” she whispered, taking a tentative step closer. “You’re sad,” she observed with an intuition only a child could possess. I am dying inside.

My heart, broken first when Graham left, is dying all over again. “I’m not.” Where did that lie come from? Where, when she’d leave behind her family and friends. She choked down a sob. “I-I am overcome with happiness.” Would the ladies of Berkshire who’d taken you under their wing of friendship still feel kindly toward you should they discover the truth? They’ll never know. She steeled her jaw. Not Aldora, not Emilia, not Constance, not Meredith, and certainly not her own sisters. “I’m going to someplace wonderful,” she said softly, continuing the stream of lies to reassure her sister. Blanche widened her brown eyes.

“Truly?” She sprinted over. “Where are we going?” We. Not “you.” Except, Rowena had never been more alone than she was in this instance. Cupping her sister’s cheek, she blinked through the tears. “It is a secret.” One that no one would ever know. Blanche pouted. “A secret. When can you tell me? When will you return?” As her sister peppered her with questions, a sob stuck in her throat, and she quickly dragged the little girl close.

Over her small shoulder, her gaze caught on the forgotten freesia lying on the floor. “Someday,” she promised. “I’ll be back someday.” When Graham returned, she’d come back. He would marry her, as he’d vowed, and all would be right again. A knock sounded at the door, sparing her from any further questions, and she and Blanche looked up. Jack Turner, with his thick crop of blond hair, stood in the doorway ringing his hat in his hands. She, Graham, and Jack had been friends from the moment she’d entered the village, and the sight of him chased back some of the panic cloying at her breast. “Your mother said I should come in and see you,” he murmured. My mother.

That coward who’d been unable to meet her eyes. Heart twisting, she patted the top of Blanche’s head. “Run along so I might speak to Jack.” Blanche rushed off and stopped beside Jack. “Mr. Turner.” She dropped a curtsy. “Miss Endicott,” he greeted with a bow and equal solemnity. Giving him a final wave, her sister left. Jack lingered in the doorway, his gaze traveling over her tear-stained cheeks.

“What is it?” he asked, drawing the door closed. Unable to speak, she bit her lower lip and gave her head a hard shake. And then the enormity of this day slammed into her. She dissolved into tears. The force of her sobs shook her frame and burned her lungs. Rowena dimly registered Jack coming close and taking her into his arms. He made useless, nonsensical calming noises that only further increased her weeping. “H-He’s sending me a-away,” she rasped against the fine fabric of his wool jacket. His fingers ceased their distracted circles. “He?” And through the noisy mess of her crying, she explained all, carefully omitting the shame of her family’s past that had resulted in her banishment.

Jack held her like that for a long while, saying nothing, and then—“Marry me.” Rowena’s ears rang from her own ragged breaths and tears. Blinking, she edged out of his arms. Marry him? This was Graham’s closest friend. A young man he’d called brother, and who was forever at his side. There was an earnestness in Jack’s gaze. “Surely you know…” he said hoarsely. Rowena gave her head an uncomprehending shake. After the duke’s visit, nothing made sense. “I love you.

” The air left her on a hiss, and she recoiled at the depth of that betrayal. Were there any limits to the lack of loyalty this day? “Graham—” “Is gone,” he said firmly. “He doesn’t matter. He is dallying with French beauties while you are left here with his father who will see you ruined.” Jack gathered her cold hands and dragged them close. “I will care for you. Love you. Be a good husband to you.” The gentleness of that offer was contradicted by the fierce glint in his eyes. He offered her stability, security, and yet, she’d sooner carve out her heart with a dull blade than betray Graham.

“Oh, Jack,” she said softly, giving his hands a squeeze. “I love Graham. You know I could never—” “You’ve given him everything,” he whispered. “Your body, your heart. I’ve offered you my name and security, and you’d reject my offer?” Her heart twisted. He’d been a good friend, and she hated to see him hurt… and hated even more that she’d caused it. “I am grate—” Her words ended on a sharp gasp as he slammed his mouth down hard on hers. Jack swallowed the sound of her protest, thrusting his tongue inside. Reaching between them, he grabbed her breast, squeezing that flesh. Shock and fear made her motionless.

As he dragged her closer, terror threatened to choke off her airflow. Gagging, Rowena shoved at him but he was immovable. She whimpered and caught him hard between the legs with her knee. A hiss slipped past his lips and he jerked away. Writhing in pain, he glowered at her. “You would be lucky to have me as your husband, whore,” he spat. Then he froze, blinking wildly. Legs shaking, Rowena touched her fingers to her bruised lips. “R-Rowena.” He stretched his hand out and she recoiled.

Then shaking her head, she raced from the room. He called after her, his voice wreathed in agony. “Forgive me. I don’t know… forgive me,” he implored. Ignoring his pleading, she sprinted from the room… wanting to run and hide forever from the pain of this day—a day of nothing but betrayals.

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