The Duke Effect – Sophie Jordan

Colonel Constantine Sinclair was not a man given to drink, but were he such an individual, he would be well into his cups by now and on his way to a state of mindlessly deep inebriation. He carefully set the letter down on the desk before him and leaned back in his chair to stare unseeingly ahead. Dimly he registered the sounds of male conversation and laughter outside his tent. This mingled with the even fainter sounds of the jungle at dusk. They’d camped here for almost eight months now. Most of the wildlife kept their distance, but he was ever aware of the fact that it was always there, teeming and nipping at the edges of the camp. Last week a soldier had strayed too far during the night and become lost. They’d only found his remains in the morning. It was a vital reminder to all to remain vigilant. The world was forever full of wild and irrepressible things, ready to devour you. Whether it be a tiger or a splinter wound. Life offered no assurances. He’d always known that to be the case, but he was starkly reminded of it now. When the camp fell asleep and the sounds of the men quieted, he would be able to hear the nearby river. It was the most peaceful part of the day, when the noise went dead and there was calm—or the illusion of it, at any rate.

He oft liked to ride along the river in the early dawn, when the world was waking, with the verdant hills rising up alongside him shrouded in mist. This time of year was pleasant, a marked difference to the stifling heat of when they had first arrived. Now he would be leaving all of this . but not by his free will. Duty compelled him home. Various aromas penetrated the walls of his tent. Food cooking over campfires. He’d already eaten, but his meal sat like a rock in his now-twisting stomach. In the distance a mandolin played. Several voices lifted in song, accompanying the instrument, but it did nothing to ease his spirits.

It was not an unfamiliar scenario, an evening like this. Nor was it even an unfamiliar song. Corporal Jones sang “Fair Rosamond” often. The ballad was a favorite among the men. What was unfamiliar was the letter he’d just tossed down on his desk from the Duke of Birchwood’s steward. A letter summoning him home. England. Home. Birchwood House. He found himself glaring at the parchment as though he could will it into flame.

Into a mound of smoldering ash. Constantine had not thought of that place as home in a good many years. Home to him had been an army tent for over half his life. Hellfire. Even a muddy battlefield felt more like home to him than what he had left behind in England as a green lad. That green lad he had once been was gone. The flap to his tent parted and his batman entered. “Whew.” Morris removed his cap and ran a hand through his hair. “Wind picking up.

Storm coming from the east.” A storm was indeed coming. “Well, I’ll be heading decidedly west on the morrow.” His batman looked up sharply as he sank down on his cot. “Did you get orders to move us west?” “In a manner.” He glanced at the letter again. “I have received orders. You and the men will stay put.” Morris followed his gaze to the rough-hewn desk with a frown. “I don’t follow your meaning.

” “I’ve been summoned home, Morris.” “Home as in England?” Constantine took a moment to react, too preoccupied with digesting this turn in his life. Eventually he nodded while gazing at the letter bearing the distantly familiar ducal seal as though it were a living, breathing thing that might rise up to snap its teeth at him. “The Duke of Birchwood has spoken.” The grand nobleman was still etched solidly in Constantine’s memory with his bushy gray muttonchops and wintry blue stare that could cut straight through you. The duke was perhaps the most prominent of his childhood memories, rising above all like a stone edifice. He remembered his parents only vaguely, as snatches of water-colored images flashing through his mind. They’d sickened from cholera and perished when he was but seven years. After the loss of his mother and father, he’d desperately wanted the love and approval of his father’s distant kinsman upon whose doorstep he was deposited. His father had been a simple solicitor and his mother of even more humble origins—a shopgirl from the East End.

Rough beginnings aside, Constantine still remembered the gentle way she would stroke his head and brush back his hair as she sang him to sleep. He’d been a broken little boy when he’d arrived at the duke’s Mayfair mansion. He’d thought it a palace, so grand had it appeared to his young eyes with its countless liveried servants and gleaming fixtures and glorious art and the vaulted ceilings that seemed to touch the sky. For ten years, the duke scarcely spoke to Constantine, but the man had done well by him. Birchwood had brought him up when his parents died. No one had forced him to do so. He was a duke of the realm and he had taken Constantine in. He’d given him a roof over his head, a chamber of his own, food on his plate and allowed him to be tutored alongside his three sons. Constantine owed him. When one considered how perfectly reasonable it would have been to have turned Constantine over to an orphanage or workhouse.

Their family connection was, after all, tenuous at best. He’d even purchased Con his commission at the age of seventeen, and no paltry commission either. He’d come into the army as an officer and had reached the rank of colonel by the age of thirty. He liked to think he had moved through the ranks due to his own merit, but his connection to the Duke of Birchwood was mentioned upon his every promotion. Now, a year later, there had been talk of another promotion. He supposed that was moot now. “Why have you been summoned home?” “It seems the duke’s son has met with an unfortunate end. He is gone,” he said in an even voice that reflected none of his inner turmoil. “Dead?” Morris asked as though requiring clarification. “Yes.

” He felt a flash of remorse over Winston’s passing. As the eldest of his cousins and the one closest in age to Constantine, Winston had set the tone of tolerance toward Constantine, and his younger two cousins followed his lead. Still, he could never claim to have been particularly close to any of the duke’s sons. Cousins four times removed, there had always been a gulf between them—an awareness that he was naught but a foundling from the wrong side of the family tree. They’d never been cruel to him . merely detached. Coolly disinterested. Rather, they had treated him as a stray cat, largely ignoring him but occasionally giving him a scratch behind the ears. Now with this letter informing him that Winston was dead—appallingly fast on the heels of Constantine’s younger two cousins who had also expired—he felt only a numb sense of shock and dismay at what this signified for him. “I thought the Duke of Birchwood’s two sons already died? You received word of that many months ago.

Why now are you being called—” “Oh, allow me to clarify. This is a third son,” he quickly supplied with a shake of his head. He felt as though he’d taken a thump to the skull. It was all very bewildering. “Birchwood’s eldest and third son has expired. The three are gone now.” All three. Gone. The Duke of Birchwood’s three sons were all gone from this earth. Constantine had received word of Malcolm’s and Albert’s untimely deaths not even a year ago, and now Winston was gone.

How did three brothers perish in the span of one year? All from dif erent ailments? What were the odds? Winston from a splinter. Albert from choking on a bit of venison. Malcolm from a broken neck. The duke now had no heir in which to hand down his title and property, entailed or otherwise—at least to no direct issue of his own. A circumstance that could never have been predicted considering his fruitful union with the duchess. “Bloody hell,” his batman muttered, rubbing a hand over his forehead. Constantine rose and made his way toward the nearby bottle of brandy. He rarely indulged in spirits. Too often, he’d been roused from bed to attend to one matter or another and he did not wish to be muddleheaded on those occasions. This felt an appropriate exception.

He poured the amber liquid into his glass and downed it in one gulp. “Bloody hell, indeed.” “Who could have imagined such a tragic thing? All his sons lost in the span of one year?” Morris’s voice faded away. He’d seen evidence enough of tragedy in his service to the empire. But three coddled, privileged sons of a duke dying in England was wildly irregular. Constantine turned and faced his batman. The two had been in service together for over a decade. Con knew he would honorably serve whoever arrived as his successor. “And yet there we have it,” he said. “All are dead,” he finished.

“And I am now the duke’s heir.” He took a deep breath. One that felt necessary for lungs that felt suddenly too tight and starving for air. “I’m leaving for England tomorrow,” he announced grimly. He had been summoned. Responsibility demanded he go. Morris nodded grimly. “Never have I imagined you would leave all this”—he motioned around them—“to become a bloody nob.” Nor would he have envisioned such a fate either. He had thought the military would be the totality of his life.

He’d wanted nothing else for himself. “I haven’t any choice.” Constantine would do what every soldier did in battle. He’d carry the flag. Pick it up where it had dropped from the hands of the fallen and carry on. He’d become the duke and take on all the duties that had been meant for the true heir, for the three before him, and continue on. Because that was what a proper soldier did. His life would never be his own again. Chapter 2 There were females in this life who were born to be wives and mothers. They knew that was their destiny from the moment they could string syllables together to form words.

It was etched into their souls. A part of their very composite, scored into their genetic structure. They embraced it. As girls they played with dolls and toy houses and tiny prams, simulating the scenes of domesticity they witnessed their own mothers and aunts and neighbors playing out. Eleanora Langley knew those girls well. Her sisters had been those girls playing at being mothers and wives. Now they were in reality mothers and wives. Nora supposed it was the natural order of things. Except she had never been one to fall into the natural order of things. As a child, Nora had mimicked Papa and pretended to be a physician, caring for her sick dolls and stuffed animals’ broken bones.

That definitely set her apart from her sisters and other girls. And now such playacting had turned into reality. Her sisters were, in fact, wives and mothers (or soon to be mothers) whilst she was not. She cared for the sick and set broken bones on actual people rather than dolls and stuffed animals now. Such a vocation definitely separated Nora from the masses. Unlike the other females in the village, she was the first one free of the family pew and out of the church doors. She was not keen on lingering to socialize with myriad neighbors and friends. There’d been enough forced socialization and threat of fire and brimstone from the vicar for the day. Enough until next Sunday when she would once again be stuck in the family pew. She strode quickly ahead.

Stepping out into the churchyard, she lifted her face to the morning sun and inhaled a contented breath. Immediately, she began searching for her family’s liveried carriage, eager to depart for home. She’d done her duty for the day. She was ready to take her leave and return home. She had many tasks waiting her attention and she was eager to get back to them. She tugged on her gloves and squinted up at the sun fighting to break through the ever-clinging clouds. At least it was not raining. This spring had been a torrential downpour and she was ready for the days of summer where she might explore the countryside once again for herbs. She glanced behind her, hoping that her sisters were quick on her heels. A vain wish, indeed.

They just cleared the doors and emerged outside when they were intercepted by the Harken-Dales. She sighed. Of course. Her brothers-in-law were equally popular. Gentlemen converged on them, too. Such pandering could take all afternoon. Nora shifted on her feet. She was not quite so popular, which was not anything particularly new or particularly wounding to her ego. Popularity was not anything for which she had ever aspired. Balls, teas, parties were all fine and well, but she would rather be working in her laboratory or toiling in her herb garden or attending to a patient.

Her sisters were married. That, she had learned, raised women in the world’s estimation— specifically in the estimation of the villagers of Brambledon. Unfair as that may be, it was the reality of things. Charlotte, historically the most reticent of the Langley sisters, was by far the most popular. A strange turn of events, indeed. Of course the reason for her sudden popularity was easy to understand. The cause happened to be the cute-as-a-bunny ten-month-old baby in her arms. Motherhood, apparently, was another cause for popularity. In fact, motherhood, perhaps, topped wifehood. While her sisters’ marriages had lifted them in the world’s estimation .

motherhood had lifted them to exalted status. A glance over her shoulder revealed Mrs. Harken-Dale cooing over Charlotte’s baby. A line was fast gathering behind her. “Gah.” Nora expelled a heavy breath. “We’re going to be here forever.” She admired her niece as much as the next person. More so. They were kin, after all.

But she did not relish having to wait whilst everyone gushed over little Cordelia. Nora’s gaze skittered to her eldest sister. Marian was increasing now, and everyone gushed over her nearly as much as Charlotte and little Cordelia. As her sisters were rushed by the matrons of the village, Nora walked briskly toward the Warrington carriage. She would wait inside. Perhaps that would encourage them to say their farewells and break away. No one attempted to intercept her. Unless someone had a boil that required lancing, Nora was not in demand. A liveried groom lowered the step and moved to open the door for her. She reached for his extended hand, ready to ascend and wait inside.

“Thank you, Thomas,” she murmured, nestling her fingers in his palm. Once she was settled on the squabs, she sat and waited, willing herself to patience. Of course, patience was not her strong suit. It never had been. In her restlessness, she slipped off her gloves and idly ran her fingers over the calluses marring her palms. “Oh, bother.” Without hailing the groom for assistance, she took flight out the door not facing the church. She cast a glance back. Thomas stared after her from his perch, looking quite puzzled. She waved a hand in the air.

“The day is so lovely. Tell my sisters I will walk home.” She marched forward, unaware if he called a reply and uncaring if he did. She was accustomed to going about her own pursuits in the manner she chose. Her sisters were accustomed as well, and would feel no surprise to find her gone. Contentment suffused her as she strolled through the countryside at an easy pace, leaving the bustling churchyard and village behind and enjoying the fine weather. Buds poked from several trees and shrubs, heralding the onset of spring. It was an excellent day for gathering herbs if only she had brought her satchel along with her. Instantly she decided she would hasten to her chamber, change her garments and gather the things she required for collecting herbs. When she arrived at Haverston Hall it was to find Marian and her husband not yet returned.

Goodness, if Nora hadn’t slipped away she would still be stuck there. Shaking her head, she dashed up to her chamber and made quick work of shedding her garments, twisting about and doing her best to undo the buttons at her back without tearing them loose. Many a button had flown on occasions before, scattered to the corners of her chamber. She knew the maid assigned to her upon moving into Haverston Hall rued the day she had landed Nora as a charge. Nora was forever uncooperative, avoiding custom and dressing herself, undressing herself, doing her own hair, tending her fire and pulling down her own bed at night. She was every lady’s maid’s nightmare, but Bea’s especially. Bea had said as much. Considering the manner of activity she had planned for the rest of the day, she donned one of her old costumes. A simple gray blouse and skirt with an embroidered belt. She had worn the attire often before Marian married the duke—when Nora was naught but a simple country maid.

Life had been hard then, with little money and debtors hunting them and a belly that was never quite full. Fear for their future was a very real thing. Now there was no fear. And yet life had been simpler then. Simpler when she’d had nothing. No money. No prospects, certainly. Now there were expectations, as much as she disliked those expectations and chafed beneath the weight of them. She descended the stairs and made her way free of the house without encountering anyone. She exhaled.

It always felt a little easier to breathe when she was clear of Haverston Hall. She basked in the fine day, her long strides quickly covering the distance, soon depositing her at her destination on the far side of the estate. The secluded little lagoon was a place she had occasionally visited, swimming in the waters as a child, although she supposed she had been trespassing in those days. She rounded the pond where several white willows crowded the water’s edge, shielding a good portion of the water from the sun. Nora was well familiar with these particular willows. She’d harvested willow bark from them regularly every spring, even before Warrington had taken residence at Haverston Hall . before he met and subsequently married Marian. Papa had been the one to show her how such a thing was done . and where all the willows were to be found in the shire. At least in so far as he knew.

The closest willow tree to her house no longer thrived. Papa had foraged from it every spring until it had finally died. She’d been delighted when she one day looked up during her swim to notice the trio of willow trees. She had at once set about harvesting the bark, but judiciously. She had no wish for the trees to perish for the sake of medicine. What good would it do anyone if she harvested the bark too aggressively and destroyed the trees? And of course, there was her work. Willow bark was a common ingredient for many of her experimental tonics. She was constantly researching ways in which to improve the suffering among the injured and ill. It had been an area of particular interest for her father, and she had taken up the banner. She winced as she considered the tonic she had made for Charlotte.

She had thought it quite harmless. Willow bark had been among its components. All the ingredients she had used before. Some together. Some apart. And yet nothing strange or new. She only altered the levels from previous variations. And yet how that tonic had dramatically altered the course of Charlotte’s life. Historically, her sister suffered from terrible cramping in the days preceding her menses. Nora felt as though she were close to a breakthrough when she delivered a new mixture to her sister, hopeful that this particular concoction might mitigate her pains.

Nora had in no way anticipated the most incredible outcome. She winced again. Nora did indeed reduce her sister’s cramping, but she also created a host of other symptoms for which she could not have accounted. She might approach life with a clinical eye and have a strong grasp of the workings of the human body, but she was still a maid. She had never given a great deal of thought to matters such as arousal. Never had she considered lust to be such an altering and powerful condition, where an individual’s physical state could outweigh her mental faculties, but that is precisely what had happened to Charlotte when she took Nora’s tonic. Nora had invented an aphrodisiac. Incredible as such a thing sounded, it was true. Nora had catapulted her shy, reticent sister into the throes of desire. Thankfully, such a circumstance had not resulted in anything dire.

Quite the opposite. When Nora considered the situation, she could only feel inordinately pleased with herself. Because of her tonic, Charlotte was blissfully in love and happily married and mother to a healthy child. Perhaps it was bigheaded of her, but she could not help herself. Wrong or right, she was proud of herself—or rather, proud of her tonic. Even if she didn’t know what to do with it now. She couldn’t very well go about dosing people with an aphrodisiac, after all. Still, her talents had never brought about such marvelous results before. As far as she knew she had helped people through their ailments, but saved no lives. It made her feel warm inside to know she had played a role in bringing about Charlotte and Kingston’s happy union .

and the life of her niece. She felt giddy at the knowledge. Nora stood back and carefully evaluated the three trees, noting the areas where she had harvested bark before. Biting her lip, she worried the tender flesh just as she worried over permanently damaging the trees. Papa had warned her against foraging too forcefully. She could cripple the tree and that would not be the thing at all. She continued to appraise the three trees, marking the lighter skinned patches where bark had been removed from the trunks in previous years. “Well,” she announced to herself. She was guilty of talking to herself whilst she worked. “It must be done.

” But done right. The only right way was to climb high up the tree to collect bark off some of the upper branches that had been spared of earlier foraging. It was much wiser to cut bark from one of the branches rather than the trunk.

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