The Duke Meets His Match – Karen Tuft

IT WAS UTTERLY LAUGHABLE WHAT one did for one’s country and monarch at times, George Kendall, the Duke of Aylesham, thought as his traveling coach entered the village of Ashworthy in Oxfordshire. It was still morning, as George had begun his journey well before dawn—arising from his bed even before the cock had crowed and the farmers had risen from theirs. For, in order to complete the assignment he’d accepted from Lord Castlereagh, the foreign secretary, he must face the woman to whom he’d been betrothed and who had jilted him. He must also face the only woman since that unfortunate occurrence whom he’d even briefly considered courting, whose marriage was being celebrated today. And George would be attending the festivities uninvited by either the bride or the groom. The coach proceeded down the high street of Ashworthy and pulled into the courtyard of the Red Ox Inn. A group of stablehands rushed over to see to the horses, and a man wearing an apron approached the coach while George exited. “Welcome to the Red Ox, my lord,” the man in the apron said, bowing. “You are addressing the Duke of Aylesham,” George’s coachman, Bentley, barked. George fought for patience at Bentley’s sharp words. It wasn’t as if every innkeeper in His Majesty’s kingdom could recognize every coat of arms on sight. “My deepest apologies. Welcome to the Red Ox, Your Grace,” the man said, turning scarlet and bowing several times in succession. George acknowledged the man with a slight nod. “I need a room for the night and accommodations for my servants,” George said.

He wanted a brief nap before he had to face the demands of the afternoon, but it was not to be. He couldn’t believe he had actually agreed to this particular assignment. “Of course, of course!” the innkeeper said, bowing again and gesturing toward the entrance to the inn. “The wife’s got a nice breakfast set up, we can have sent to your room, and we can have a bath drawn, and—” George held up his hand. The innkeeper stopped speaking. “Breakfast would be appreciated. That is all,” George said. “My valet will deal directly with you if there is anything else.” “Yes, Your Grace. Thank you, Your Grace,” the man said, bowing repeatedly again.

George nodded and then strode across the courtyard toward the inn, with the owner scurrying over to open the door for him. Soon enough, he was settled into the best room the inn had to offer—it was devoid of any style, but at least it was clean—and a hot meal of eggs, sausage, beans, and bread arrived soon afterward. George was not particularly hungry, but he ate what was placed before him, as discipline required. He needed his strength today. It was an utterly ludicrous situation in which to find himself, although it didn’t seem particularly humorous at the moment. Perhaps he would find the humor in it at some future date, but not now. He called for his valet. Evans stepped into the room from his adjoining one. “Yes, Your Grace?” he asked. “It’s time for me to face the ghosts of my past so that England’s future may be assured,” he said with not a little sarcasm.

Evans would understand; he’d been George’s father’s valet before becoming George’s and was, truth be told, the person who was the closest thing to a father figure George had ever had. Not that Evans was really that much of a father figure. Actually, George hardly knew what having a father was like, or a mother, for that matter. He barely remembered anything about either of them—only the occasional story or two that he’d been told over the years. George’s mother had died giving birth to him, and his father had died when George was still in leading strings. As a result of the latter, George had inherited the honorary title of Earl of Kerridge, Evans as his valet, and his father’s solicitor, Mr. Oliver Dutton, Esquire, who’d been designated as George’s guardian in his father’s will and had remained a pain in George’s backside ever since. “Your mind is wandering again, Your Grace,” Evans said. “My mind never wanders, Evans. It goes precisely where I send it.

” “If you say so, Your Grace,” Evans replied. “Hmm,” George muttered, removing his ruby stickpin and untying the neckcloth and tossing it aside. “I must endeavor to look better than my usual best today, Evans. You must outdo your always outstanding work.” “Understood, Your Grace,” Evans said. “I have already seen to your boots and clothing.” “What would I do without you, Evans?” George said as he unbuttoned his waistcoat. “You would find someone to replace me,” Evans replied. He wrapped a towel around George’s neck and lathered his face. “Now, hold still,” he said, picking up the razor and flashing it in front of George’s face.

“I currently wield more power than even the mighty Duke of Aylesham.” George nearly smiled at Evans’s attempt at humor. It was the most lighthearted he’d felt since he’d left his London home this morning, although that really wasn’t saying much. Soon enough—all too soon—he was dressed impeccably and descending from his carriage at Cantwell Hall, the estate of Christopher “Kit” Osbourne, Earl of Cantwell, who had married Lady Elizabeth Spaulding this very morning and whose wedding festivities George would be joining at the invitation of Cantwell’s brother, Phillip Osbourne. For George and Phillip had business of the Crown to discuss, and doing it under the guise of a country wedding had been deemed the best approach. *** Susan Jennings had attended enough weddings to last her a lifetime—yet, here she was, once again, attending another one. But, really, she had only herself to blame. With her wits entirely intact, she had agreed to travel to Oxfordshire with her brother, Lucas, and his wife, Lavinia, to attend the marriage of Lucas’s friend Lord Cantwell to Lady Elizabeth Spaulding. Susan had grown to love her new sister-in-law, Lavinia, ever since Lucas and Lavinia’s own wedding the previous summer. She was clever, and Susan enjoyed their lively conversations.

Lavinia was currently expecting the couple’s first child, and Lucas had thought Lavinia would appreciate having Susan as a female companion for the long journey. Agreeing to accompany them from their home in Lincolnshire to Oxfordshire had sounded to Susan like an agreeable diversion from the routine of country life. However, now that Susan had sat through the wedding, which, she conceded, had been lovely, and had sat through the luncheon that had followed, which had been delicious, and had mingled and chatted a bit with the many and varied guests, she was ready for a different type of diversion, one that provided peace and quiet away from the crowds and noise and conversations about nothing and everything. She liked socializing with people well enough, but she had her limits. Looking about to make sure she wasn’t being observed, she slipped out of the ballroom. She had made a note to herself of where the library was located when she and Lavinia had been taken on a tour of Cantwell Hall after arriving and settling in at Ashworth Park earlier in the week. They had been told by none other than Lord Cantwell himself that he hoped they would make themselves at home during their stay in Oxfordshire and were welcome at Cantwell Hall at any time. Since they’d been in the library when he’d made his pronouncement, she had decided to take Lord Cantwell at his word. The library was the place Susan would feel most at home anyway. Its location wasn’t far from the ballroom, where all the wedding celebrations were taking place.

Susan walked down the corridor, her slippers making no sound on the lush carpets. She eventually reached the library, opened the door, and stepped inside, shutting the door behind her. She leaned against it and closed her eyes, breathing in the wonderful scent of leather and paper and ink. Her father’s library wasn’t as large as this one, his collection of books modest by comparison, but it held the same familiar smell she was breathing in right now—one that spoke of years gone by, battles fought, science and mathematics and languages, fantastical tales of heroism and romance all written painstakingly on the pages of the tomes within these walls. She took in a great lungful of air as though it alone would rejuvenate her and then pushed herself away from the door. It was time to wander the shelves and peruse the titles to find a book or two that would pique her interest for the afternoon, until it was time to return to Ashworth Park. To her immediate right were four comfortable-looking overstuffed chairs cozily arranged with a few small tables where one might place chosen books. Directly in front of her and to her left were rows of bookshelves placed back to back, creating small aisles between them, and the walls of the library were lined with bookshelves as well. It seemed a veritable feast. Susan started with the row nearest to her.

The first row held science books, and she quickly learned that the books were arranged alphabetically by topic and title: primarily agriculture and animal husbandry, but alongside those were books on astronomy, botany, physics, physiognomy, and the like. Since those subjects, while interesting, weren’t quite what she was in the mood for at present, she continued on. The next row of shelves dealt with history and appeared to include everything from the Trojan War forward, unless she counted the Bible that she’d spotted sitting on a bookstand near the door, which technically took them all the way back to Adam and Eve. But she had had enough news about the war with the French that she was not inclined to pull any histories from the shelves. And she already studied her Bible on a daily basis. She continued on through the rows of bookshelves, eventually locating a small section dedicated to literature, which delighted her. After thumbing through several, she eventually decided upon the novel Evelina, a delightful discovery, and a book of poetry by William Blake and then settled into a small upholstered chair in a back corner of the room—completely hidden and wonderfully solitary. She removed her spectacles from her pocket and put them on and then allowed the words of Blake to weave a soft, musical rhythm in her head. *** George made it past Cantwell’s butler merely by handing the man his calling card and glaring at him. From there, it was obvious where the wedding luncheon was being held simply because one needed only to follow the sounds of the guests coming down the main corridor.

He eventually arrived at the ballroom, not surprised to realize he knew many of the people present —the Duke and Duchess of Atherton and Lord Bledsoe and his wife appeared to have made the journey from London. George discreetly avoided the Marquess and Marchioness of Ashworth, who were neighbors of Lord Cantwell and were the parents of Lady Louisa, the woman to whom George had been betrothed eight long years ago. He was well over whatever attachment he had formed to Lady Louisa, but as he had important work to do today, he didn’t need the distraction that would come from potentially rehashing events of the past. Eventually, he spied Phillip Osbourne and subtly caught his attention. Osbourne excused himself from the guests with whom he was speaking and came directly to George. “You’re here,” Osbourne said. “As you see,” George replied. “Where do you suggest we talk?” he added in low tones. “The library,” Osbourne said. “It’s the first door on the left when you take the corridor that runs parallel to this one.

” Before Osbourne could say any more, however, the bride and groom approached them, and George could tell by the expression on the new Lady Cantwell’s face that she was surprised to see him—as, of course, she would be, having not invited him herself. Lady Cantwell was the image of loveliness and gentility. She was undoubtedly the most beautiful woman George had ever seen. Her features were as though painted by a Renaissance master: alabaster skin, shining blonde hair, and eyes of the deepest blue. He doubted there was a man alive who, upon beholding her, would not have become her instant admirer. George certainly had. But alas, she had been off the marriage market since childhood, promised to the Marquess of Ashworth’s heir until recently. George had seriously considered marrying Lady Elizabeth when she’d returned to London this Season, despite the disrepute of her father, the Duke of Marwood. But George had taken his eye off the prize—and Cantwell had been the victor. He nodded to Lord Cantwell and bowed over Lady Cantwell’s hand.

“Please forgive me for intruding on your special occasion as an uninvited guest,” he said to her. Cantwell was studying George a bit too closely for his liking. “He is not entirely uninvited,” Osbourne said in response to his brother’s unasked question. “I extended the invitation to him, you see, and as I’m the brother of the groom, I presumed I could invite a guest if I wished.” “Aylesham is always a welcome addition,” Lord Cantwell said, still studying George. George’s fingers instinctively sought out his quizzing glass. “Many thanks,” he replied. “Lady Cantwell, may I offer my congratulations to you and Lord Cantwell on your nuptials,” he said. “However, I would be dishonest if I didn’t say that I am disappointed—or perhaps envious is a better word. He is an extraordinarily fortunate man.

I hope he knows that.” “Thank you,” she replied, gazing at George with those soul-deep blue eyes of hers. “I am humbled and grateful for your words.” She truly was the most perfectly beautiful woman, and her graciousness only added to her beauty. He nodded slightly toward her, holding his regret firmly in check, and then excused himself under the pretext of mingling with the other guests. Instead, he exited the ballroom and went in search of the library. There had been so few unmarried ladies who’d held George’s interest. His granduncle, the former Duke of Aylesham, had encouraged him to find a wife, as male heirs in the Aylesham line were sparse. Worse than sparse. Mr.

Dutton had spent a good deal of time researching the family line in search of George’s heir. In the meantime, George had spent the past few years subtly reviewing each crop of young ladies making their come-outs, and he’d found no one he could stomach the idea of marrying, and the older he got, the younger and sillier they all seemed. But enough of such maudlin thoughts, he told himself. Marriage was a business proposition, requiring only that George be able to at least envision himself leading some sort of companionable coexistence with his future wife. He’d held youthful hopes and even the beginnings of love during his brief betrothal to Lady Louisa, and then Lady Elizabeth’s near perfection had stirred those hopes again. It was time to put such romantic foolishness to rest. *** The door to the library opened. Susan looked up from her book. The door closed with a quiet click. She waited, her ear straining for any noise.

Had someone merely peered into the room and then left? Or was there someone in the library with her now? Ugh, how utterly annoying if her solitude was now to be interrupted. She’d only just set the poetry aside to read Evelina. She wanted to continue reading, not deal with the niceties of social conversation. Maybe if she remained quiet . She heard a man sigh, followed by a squeak and swooshing sound that led Susan to conclude— unhappily—that whoever it was had sat in one of the chairs near the door, which meant he intended to be here for a while. Bother. Now what should she do? She had been here first, she told herself. She would simply ignore the man. Perhaps he would soon leave. She tried to resume reading—but, honestly, how was one to read under such circumstances, when one’s mind was constantly drawn to the awareness of an intruder in the room? Within a few minutes, the door opened again, and the chair squeaked and swooshed as the man presumably arose to greet whoever had joined him.

Double bother. “We must make this conversation brief,” a male voice said softly. “Agreed. The less said, the better,” another male voice replied. This voice was slightly lower in pitch than the first man’s voice. Susan heard the sound of papers rustling. “These are the letters of introduction you will need”—more rustling sounds— “and this is the document from Lord C that will explain our intent.” “Excellent,” the first man said. “This final letter gives instructions to the captain of my yacht.” Susan’s forehead knit together.

Letters of introduction? A yacht? A document? And who was Lord C? What were these men talking about? Her mind was abuzz with curiosity. “When can you leave?” the man with the lower-pitched voiced asked. “As soon as I feel it appropriate, under the circumstances.” “Ah, yes. Family duties. Do you have any questions? If not, it is best that we separate and each return in our own time to the wedding celebration.” “I have no questions at present. I’m fully aware of the gravity of my assignment,” the man who’d been given the letters said. “Excellent. Godspeed.

” Susan stayed completely still and waited to hear the door open and close. She didn’t have to wait long. The door opened and, after a few moments, shut again. She let out a breath and stood, closing Evelina as she did so. She would put the book of poetry back on the shelf, but she thought she might ask Lord Cantwell if she could borrow the novel and finish reading it before she returned to Lincolnshire— “Ahem.” She looked up, startled. A very tall, very haughty-looking, very angry gentleman stood at the end of the row of books directly in front of her. He stalked toward her, his mouth in a firm line, his eyes burning like black coals. She disliked him on sight. “Do you make it a regular practice of eavesdropping on other people’s conversations?” he asked her in a surprisingly soft but nonetheless biting tone.

“Do you make it a regular practice of barging into a room that is already occupied and commandeering it?” she replied. It was an overstatement of what he’d done, but she didn’t care. He’d provoked her. He was standing directly in front of her by now. He was much taller than she and looked down at her with disdain, fingering his quizzing glass. “You, ma’am, should have made your presence known, had you any manners at all.” “Perhaps you should have checked the library more carefully if you intended to have a private conversation. Very sloppy on your part, I must say,” she retorted. He raised his quizzing glass halfway to his eye and glared at her. “If you are trying to intimidate me, you may as well stop right now,” she said before he could speak.

“I have three older brothers and have dealt with male intimidation in all its varied forms since I was in leading strings. You can have no effect on me.”

.

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