Home > Duke in Search of a Duchess :Sweet Regency Romance

Duke in Search of a Duchess :Sweet Regency Romance
Author: Jennifer Ashley

Chapter 1

 

 

Precision. Nothing wrong with it.

Ash allowed his walking stick a single swing as he left St. James’s Palace at exactly seven o’clock in the evening and strode up St. James’s Street in the cool September dusk. He bypassed the temples to backroom politics and ruinous games—White’s, Brooke’s, Boodle’s, et cetera—and continued to Piccadilly, crossing the thoroughfare and along to the green space of Berkeley Square.

He walked not only for the exercise but because he knew precisely how long it would take him to reach his front door. No would-be pickpocket or robber accosted him along the way, because none would dream of waylaying Augustine Ferrand, the Duke of Ashford. Even the underworld of London had heard of Ash, and stayed away.

At half past seven on the dot, he entered his domain, and his valet, Edwards, took his hat, coat, and stick.

A meal waited upstairs in the dining room. Ash consumed it in silence, as usual, reading his evening correspondence and his stack of newspapers. The footmen served fish, soup, meat, and greens with flawless efficiency. The butler poured a red wine for the beginning of the meal and a sweet white for its end. Ash would take brandy later, but only after another order of business.

At twenty-five minutes past eight, Ash pushed back his chair, left his papers and letters for Edwards to carry to the library, and climbed the stairs to the nursery.

A chink opened in Ash’s armor when he entered—after tapping politely—to find his oldest son, Lewis, Marquess of Wilsdon, ten years old, standing in the middle of the room.

Ash’s immediate thought, unbidden: He looks so like his mother.

Olivia, gentle, beautiful, of the silver laughter, gone forever. Lily, the youngest, had her laugh. She’d be the mirror of Olivia in a few years.

Ash forced the chink closed. Memories only gutted.

To hide his sudden falter, he pulled out his gold pocket watch. It read the same as the mantel clock, which had chimed twice as he’d entered. “Half past eight. Why are you all not in bed?”

Ash was surprised, not angry. Lewis had adopted Ash’s meticulous schedule without protest and made certain his sisters followed it as well.

The sisters in question, Evie and Lily, peeked out from behind Lewis’s nightshirted back. “Good evening, Papa,” Lily said.

The fog that perpetually surrounded Ash’s life cleared the slightest bit at the sight of his lovely daughters.

At half past eight every evening, Ash entered the nursery, kissed his children good night, and sat between their beds to read a chapter from whatever book they were perusing together. Currently it was The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, though Ash tended to leave out the more frightening bits. He did not want delicate Evie to have nightmares.

The nanny, chosen for her neat habits and her willingness—indeed, eagerness—to follow Ash’s rules for his offspring, stood rigidly near the bookcase, hands folded. She did not look approving, but she did not intervene, which was interesting. Lewis’s will had obviously prevailed.

“What is this?” Ash asked in more concern. “Are you well?”

“Your Grace,” Lewis said formally. “My sisters and I convened a council.” He stumbled a little over the word convened, but Ash kept his face straight.

“And what did this council discuss?”

Ash expected Lewis, who was growing at an astonishing rate, to ask for his own bedchamber, or for the more adventurous parts of the stories to be left in, or perhaps beefsteak instead of nursery fare. Natural, Ash supposed. He gave Lewis an encouraging look, ready to consider his son’s demands.

Lewis cleared his throat. “It has come to our attention that you, sir, perhaps are … well, perhaps …” He flushed and flicked his gaze away.

“A straightforward statement is best, son,” Ash said. “When you stand up in the House to face down your opposition, you must be clear, concise, and unafraid.”

Lewis’s face grew redder. Ash conceded that facing a horde of pigheaded peers shouting in the House of Lords might be easier than telling one’s own father what was on one’s mind.

“Your timetables,” Lewis said quickly. Lily and Evie remained behind him, their eyes round.

“Timetables?” Ash’s mouth tightened, and another dart of pain lanced his heart. Why did they look so afraid of him? He’d thought he and his children rubbed along tolerably well, a damn sight better than Ash had done with his own father.

“Yes, sir.” Lewis looked miserable. “You like them too much, we have decided.”

Ash blinked. “It is not a case of liking or disliking, son. One must be punctual and reliable. That is how one gains trust and respect. Honor.”

“Yes, sir.” Lewis swallowed, but his jaw firmed with determination. “But, we have concluded that …”

“Mama never followed them,” Lily burst out. “Least, that’s what Evie and Lewis say.”

Lily didn’t remember her mother, Olivia having succumbed to fever the year Lily was born. Ash, ill with the same fever, had raged that he’d not been able to save her, but he’d forced himself to recover, to not succumb to despair, for the sake of the three facing him now.

Olivia had been gentle-voiced but laughing and spontaneous. She’d never been capable of keeping to the clock, and Ash had never minded.

But arbitrariness was no way to overcome grief, to raise children, to get on with life without falling to pieces.

“Lily,” Evie hissed. “That’s not what you’re supposed to say.”

Lily stepped out from behind Lewis, but she remained close to her brother. “Lewis ain’t telling it right. He says you are too—what is that word?” She turned back to her siblings, her braid of dark hair sliding on her shoulder.

“Rigid,” Evie supplied, while Lewis tried and failed to glare them both to silence. “Unyielding.”

Ash switched his gaze to Lewis. “I see.”

Was he unyielding? Ash had no idea. The haze he lived in didn’t let him notice much but what was directly in front of him.

“Sorry, sir,” Lewis said.

“No.” Ash straightened to his full height. “Do not apologize. Gentlemen ought to be able to point out each other’s faults in order to improve them. In what way am I too rigid, your lordship?”

Lewis hesitated, then went on as though steeling himself to finish, come what may. “You look at your watch too often. As though worried you will miss your next appointment.”

“Because I have many appointments,” Ash answered, trying to sound reasonable. “A duke and a cabinet minister has much to do. You will learn this when you begin your public life.”

“But when you are at home? With us?”

The chink in the armor widened once more. Adherence to schedule was how Ash had climbed back from illness and sorrow and made his life meaningful again. It was how he’d taken care of his children.

He forced his tone to remain gentle. “There is nothing wrong with following a timetable, Lewis. Eating and sleeping regularly is the way to good health.”

“If you say so, sir.”

Lily slipped her hand into Lewis’s. As though finding courage in her brother’s touch, she lifted her chin.

“Lewis says you won’t unbend until you get married,” she said. “If we have a new mama, you won’t worry so much about not staying with us one second longer than you must.”

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