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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Duke I Once Knew

Unlikely Duchesses

Unlikely Duchesses (Volume 1)

Olivia Drake

St. Martin's Paperbacks

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Chapter 1


If they didn’t stop rearranging her life, she would shriek at them—all of them. Right here, right now, in the midst of a family party.

The tide of anger caught Abigail Linton by surprise, and she drew a deep breath in an effort to dispel it. It wasn’t like her to feel such resentment toward those most dear to her. Or to be tempted to rant at them like an escapee from Bedlam. Especially not when she cuddled her infant nephew.

Standing near the open window, she gently rocked Freddie in her arms. Looking at his sweet little face helped to calm her. He’d fallen into a fretful sleep, thank goodness, after an eventful morning in which he’d suffered the indignity of having cold water poured over his brow at the baptismal font.

Abby, her four siblings, and their spouses had gathered in the drawing room to celebrate his christening. The newborn’s father, Abby’s brother James, was vicar of the village church. Since the rectory was cramped, the extended family had proceeded to their childhood home a mile away. Linton Manor now belonged to her eldest brother, Clifford, upon the death of their elderly parents the previous autumn.

The youngest of the five, Abby had enjoyed exchanging news with her two sisters and two brothers. She had relished visiting with a throng of nieces and nephews. She had loved hearing the laughter of the younger children playing outdoors on this pleasant summer afternoon, and she’d smiled at the older ones who were gathered around the pianoforte while seventeen-year-old Valerie practiced her playing.

Abby had felt enveloped by a warm sense of family. At least until a moment ago when the conversation had turned to her future.

“It is only fitting that Abby remain here in her childhood home,” Clifford proclaimed from his stance by the hearth. A portly man in his early fifties, he presided over the gathering as head of the family. “Now that our children are married, Lucille needs a companion.”

“Indeed,” his stout wife murmured, taking up the silver pot to refresh his tea. “You’ve so many duties since inheriting the estate, my dear, and it’s pleasant to have someone with me during the day while you’re out.”

Abby’s middle sibling, Rosalind, set down her cup with a rattle. At forty, she had retained her girlish figure, though strands of silver glinted in the signature copper hair of the Lintons. “But Abby must come back to Kent with me. I’m counting on her!”

“Whatever for?” Clifford asked testily.

“Valerie will be making her bows soon, and you know how lively the dear girl can be.” Rosalind cast a fond glance at the strawberry-blond beauty flirting at the pianoforte with her older male cousins. “I daresay she’ll be the toast of the season. It shall take two of us to properly chaperone her.”

“For pity’s sake, it’s merely August.” Mary, the second oldest, bestirred herself from a scrutiny of the cake plate in order to address her younger sister. “You shan’t be departing for London until February at the earliest.”

“But there is her trousseau to prepare! Her dancing and curtsies to practice!”

“Bah,” Mary said dismissingly. “Rather, I should find it extremely helpful to have Abby with me. The twins will soon be coming for an extended visit while George and Caroline holiday in Italy. Poor Caro cannot find a nanny who can stop them from running wild. Isn’t that so, Ronald?”

“What’s that?” Her balding husband glanced up from where he and Peter, Rosalind’s husband, were studying the latest racing form. “Yes, darling, whatever you say.”

“There, you see?” Mary said, regarding her siblings with a superior air. “Abby is much needed in Suffolk. I am the wife of a baronet, after all. I cannot be chasing after a pair of three-year-old boys. It isn’t dignified.”

“Oh, pooh!” Rosalind waved her hand. “A title doesn’t make you any better than the rest of us. Nor should your wishes take precedence over mine.”

Clifford frowned. “Nevertheless, Mary is right, you’ve no need of Abby until spring. As for you, Mary, you ought to hire an extra nanny for a few months rather than drag Abby halfway across the country. This is her home, after all. She ought to remain right here.”

“Hire an extra nanny!” Mary looked aghast at the prospect. She could be pleasant company except in matters of money, when her skinflint nature rose to the fore. “Only think of the expense—”

“I must concur with Clifford,” James said. He was a slim man in a clerical collar who exuded a gentle demeanor that helped him to shepherd his flock. “There are needs greater than yours, I’m afraid. Now that the new baby has arrived, it has been a blessing to have Abby so close to the village. Daphne can scarcely find time to breathe between caring for our other three children and fulfilling the duties of a vicar’s wife.”

“It has indeed been difficult,” Daphne said, languidly waving an ivory fan at her pretty face. “There are times when I am quite overwhelmed, and Abby’s help has been a godsend. Heaven knows, Freddie is very blessed to have the loving care of his aunt.”

At the sound of his mama’s voice, the baby stirred restlessly in his sleep, and Abby walked back and forth to settle him. She told herself to be grateful that she was needed. Grateful that her siblings desired her assistance. Grateful that she would always have a home with one of them.

Nevertheless, a rare knot of resentment tightened inside her.

They were speaking of her future. Yet she might as well be invisible for as much as they consulted her wishes on where she preferred to live.

Perhaps it was her looming birthday that made her feel so prickly. In a fortnight, she would turn thirty years of age. Thirty! With no husband or children to call her own.

The youngest by seven years, she’d been the surprise child born when their mother had been in her middle forties. While her siblings had wed and started families, the task of caring for their aging parents had fallen to Abby. In her youth, when she ought to have enjoyed a season in London, being courted by a bevy of eligible gentlemen, she had remained here in Hampshire because Mama had broken her hip in a tumble from a horse and had never regained complete mobility. As well, Papa had come to depend on Abby to help with the research for his book on medieval history. Her twenties had slipped away as she’d busied herself with tending to their needs. Then, less than a year ago, both her parents had fallen ill with influenza.

Their deaths had been a shock. She had spent her entire life in their company and for months afterward she had grieved. Today, in deference to the happy occasion, she’d put off her blacks for a gown of dove gray. The rest of the family had donned brighter colors weeks ago. Of course, none of her siblings had had such a special closeness to their parents as she’d had.

Nor did they quite understand the sacrifices she’d made.

Not that she had minded. Certainly not! She’d dearly loved Mama and Papa. Their care had never been a burden. Yet now, contemplating the rest of her life, Abby felt a disquiet that bordered on panic.

Was this to be her future? Was she doomed to be shuttled among her siblings, never having a place to call her own? When she grew old and gray, would there come a time when her nieces and nephews squabbled over who must take her in?

Running a fingertip over the baby’s soft cheek, Abby knew with a pang that life had passed her by. The romantic dreams of her youth had burned to ashes. She was a spinster. In all likelihood, she would never know marriage or motherhood.

Oh, she’d had a few suitors over the years, one quite recently. Mr. Babcock, a gentleman farmer, had offered for her this past spring, but she had put him off with a polite refusal. Nevertheless, he’d declared his intention to ask again once her full year of mourning was over.

Abby toyed with the notion of accepting him. Mr. Babcock was a decent man, solid and respectable, but she would have to share the same house with his henpecking mother and strict Calvinistic father. Was she truly so desperate as to wed someone whose sole interests were cows and sheep, anyway? Who failed to stir even the smallest spark of fire in her blood? Could she endure his dull company day after day, month after month, year after year, for the chance to avoid being a vagabond who moved from relative to relative?

A deep-seated resistance in her balked at taking that drastic step. Yet she did not relish the notion of spending the rest of her life as the family’s unpaid servant, either.

Perhaps there was another answer.

Just that morning, she’d learned an interesting tidbit of news from her best friend in the village. Lizzie Pentwater had whispered it in her ear during the christening at church. An idea had crept into the back of Abby’s mind. An idea that was appealing and audacious. An idea that would most definitely put her at odds with her siblings.

Clutching the swaddled baby, she started toward the door of the drawing room. She needed to be alone to think. To consider all the consequences.

“Abby! Where are you taking my son?”

She turned to face her sister-in-law. Daphne lounged in her chair in a place of honor at the center of the gathering. Since her papa owned the draper’s shop in the village, she always dressed like an illustration out of La Belle Assemblée, despite being the vicar’s wife. Today, a gown of shell-pink India muslin swathed her dainty form and a gold comb secured her sable curls.

“I’m going to the nursery,” Abby murmured over the music of the pianoforte and the laughter of the children. “The noise is disturbing Freddie.”

“Oh, but my little darling must stay. It is his day, after all, so why should he be put upstairs?” Daphne turned a winsome smile toward her husband. “Do tell her, James.”

“Babies need their naps,” he said, though his face softened as he gazed at his wife. “Nevertheless, this is a special occasion, so I’m agreeable to making an exception.”

“Perhaps you should hold him, then,” Abby said.

Stepping forward, she placed the sleeping child in her brother’s arms. His brown eyes widened. Although an otherwise affectionate father, James, like most men, was accustomed to leaving the care of infants to the women.

He gingerly clutched the bundle against his black clerical suit. “Er … I’m not certain this is wise. What if he should awaken? He might howl!” He glanced rather desperately at Daphne, who in her finery looked equally unwilling to take the baby, then turned his gaze back up at Abby. “Perchance you’ll be so kind as to have him back?”

“No. I won’t.”

The words spilled from Abby’s lips without conscious thought. Nor had she planned to shove the baby at him like that. It wasn’t like her to be rude. Or to refuse to do what was expected of her.

Yet her tongue seemed incapable of voicing a retraction.

Everyone gaped at her. Clifford paused with his teacup half raised to his mouth. Lucille clutched a plate of cakes. Rosalind’s eyebrows winged upward. James and Daphne wore identical frowns as if Abby had just uttered a salty expletive. Even Ronald and Peter glanced up from their study of the races.

They all appeared so shocked, Abby had to swallow a mad laugh that bubbled up from nowhere. There was nothing remotely amusing about the situation. It was just that she’d always acquiesced to their wishes.

And it felt incredibly liberating to utter a refusal for once.

Mary huffed out a breath. “Abigail Jane Linton! That is most ill-mannered. Do take the child and apologize at once.”

By way of reply, Abby crossed her arms. Her slippers felt glued to the ancient rug with its cabbage-rose pattern that had been worn threadbare by generations of Linton feet. An inner voice whispered that if she conceded now, she might never again find the courage to stand up for herself.

“Well!” Rosalind said in a perky tone. “One can scarcely blame our sister for rebelling at being treated like a nursemaid. That’s all the more reason for her to come home with me. Together, we can plan Valerie’s wardrobe and study Burke’s to make a list of the most eligible bachelors. It shall be a treat for Abby.”

“That matter is already settled,” Clifford declared. “Since both James and I have need of her, she must remain right here for the near future.”

“Ever since we lost our parents, you’ve had Abby at your beck and call,” Rosalind countered. “You haven’t stopped to consider that the rest of us might appreciate her company, too. Why, she has never even traveled to Kent to visit me!”

“Enough.” He slashed his hand downward. “There is nothing more to discuss. She will stay here.”

“No,” Abby said. “I most certainly will not.”

Again, everyone turned to stare. It was as if, in the midst of their bickering, they’d forgotten her presence again. Was she merely a wallflower to fade into the woodwork except when they needed something from her? Or worse, a commodity to be traded back and forth between them, depending upon who complained the loudest?

She loved them all dearly—they and their children, her nieces and nephews. Family had always been her entire world, the very center of her existence. But it was time to break free of their stifling demands. Her siblings must be made to understand that she wanted to set her own path for once.

At least for a time. At least until she’d experienced a little of life outside the sphere of their influence.

She was nearly thirty, after all, and she had never ventured farther than twenty miles from home. She had never lived anywhere but right here in this old manor house with its ancient wallpaper and the chipped porcelain dogs on the mantelpiece that had been there for as long as she could remember.

Clifford stared at her with a hint of bewilderment. “I cannot fathom this sudden defiance in you. Is our company so abhorrent to you?”

“Of course not!” Abby said. “You mustn’t think such a thing—”

“What else am I to conclude when you seem so eager to leave my home and my protection?”

She nearly quailed under the force of that piercing look. Because of their age difference, she and her eldest brother had never been close. He’d married Lucille the year before Abby had been born. At fifty-three, he was old enough to be her father.

Nevertheless, she must not allow him to dictate to her.

“You may conclude,” she said firmly, “that what I do should not be decided by anyone but myself. And no one here has bothered to inquire as to my thoughts on the matter.”

Lucille wrung her hands as she glanced at her husband, then back at Abby. “Does your head ache, darling? I daresay it’s this changeable weather, chilly one day and scorching the next. Perhaps you would care to go upstairs and have a lie-down?”

“Thank you, but I’m perfectly fine. It is only that I should like to have a say in my own future.”

Rosalind jumped up, looped her arm through Abby’s, and smirked at Clifford. “There, you see? Our sister doesn’t wish to be the subject of your decrees. She must be allowed to make her own choice and enjoy a holiday in Kent with me.”

Abby slipped her arm free. “That is your choice, Rosie, not mine. And what I choose to do is to apply for the post of governess to Lady Gwendolyn Bryce at Rothwell Court.”

For a moment, the only sounds were the tinkle of the pianoforte and the shriek of children engaged in a raucous game of blindman’s buff outside the open windows of the drawing room. Then a clamor of adult voices broke out.

“A governess?” Clifford said in astonishment. “Whatever put such a wild notion in your mind? Your place is with your family!”

“Oh, dear,” Lucille murmured, looking scandalized, “you cannot labor for a living. Whatever will the neighbors think?”

“You’ve never even had a season,” Mary added bluntly. “Lady Gwendolyn must be close to an age to make her debut. What training do you have for preparing the sister of a duke for presentation at court?”

Abby had wondered that herself. But she chose to sidestep the question. “Lady Gwendolyn has just turned fifteen. She won’t be entering society for another three years.”

“Never mind all that,” Rosalind said, her brown eyes bright with interest. “Did no one think to tell me that the Duke of Rothwell is in residence? Valerie and I must pay a neighborly call on him tomorrow. Why, he is the most eligible bachelor in England!”

“He is also England’s most infamous libertine,” Clifford said curtly, pacing back and forth. “Lechery, fighting, gambling—he is the master of vices. You would scarce believe the stories that circulate in London! I cannot—I will not—permit any sister of mine to venture within a mile of his house.”

“His Grace isn’t at Rothwell Court,” Abby pointed out. “You know as well as I that he hasn’t come in many years.”

Fifteen, to be precise. Not since his late father had whisked the family away upon the death of the duchess, the present duke’s mother. She had died of childbed fever shortly after Lady Gwendolyn’s birth.

The duke’s vast acreage adjoined Linton land and dwarfed all other holdings in this part of rural Hampshire. Wicked reputation or not, Rothwell would have stirred excitement with a visit to his ducal seat. The village and its surrounds would have been abuzz with excitement.

Except for Abby. If it was up to her, Maxwell Bryce, the Duke of Rothwell, need never again sully the neighborhood with his beastly presence.

Rosalind plopped back down in her chair. “I don’t understand. Why would His Grace’s sister live there without him?”

“She’s made her home at the Court for the past few years,” Lucille said, moving around the room to refresh everyone’s teacup. “I believe His Grace’s aunt, Lady Hester, has a particular fondness for the gardens.”

“Then let Lady Hester see to the girl,” Clifford burst out in irritation. “There is no reason why Abby should seek employment there!”

The baby in James’s lap let out a whimper. “Do keep your voices down,” James hissed. “You needn’t shout.”

“Doesn’t Lady Gwendolyn already have a governess?” Daphne asked in a loud whisper. “Miss Herrington, I believe is her name. The two of them sometimes attend church on Sundays.”

Abby had found Miss Herrington to be remarkably young and pretty, though they’d never exchanged more than an occasional greeting. “Lizzie Pentwater told me that Miss Herrington departed suddenly due to a family illness. And I intend to apply for the vacant post.”

Lucille set down the teapot. “But why, darling? Have we made you feel unwelcome here? Oh, I know it must be difficult when a woman is unattached. But I assure you, we want you to make your home with us.”

“And here is where she must stay,” Clifford insisted. “No sister of mine will be employed. People will say that I’m impoverished, sending her out to earn her own keep.”

“There will indeed be a great deal of unpleasant gossip,” Mary added, casting a shrewd glance at Abby. “It won’t do for the Linton name to be tainted by rumors and innuendos. The chinwags will whisper that our family is on the brink of disaster.”

Rosalind’s eyes widened. “Why, I hadn’t considered that. The scandal is bound to harm Valerie’s chance to make a brilliant match. Many gentlemen will disdain to wed a girl with a host of penniless relations!”

“More importantly, Abby, you’re our dear sister,” James said as he awkwardly attempted to jiggle his fussing son back to sleep. “We need you to remain right here with us.”

They all gazed at Abby as if her departure would cause them desperate sorrow and grave ruination. The infant echoed the sentiment with a series of peevish cries.

For a moment, her resolve wavered. She felt horribly selfish for abandoning her family in order to venture out on her own. It would be so easy to say that she was wrong and to bow to their wishes. To subdue her longing to experience something more of life beyond these familiar walls.

Yet Abby knew she was being maneuvered.

Their arguments were flimsy. They had to realize that any gossip about a minor family of the gentry wouldn’t cause much of a stir as far away as London, and it likely wouldn’t hurt her niece’s marital prospects, either. No, her siblings wanted her to stay in order to serve their own purposes.

“I’m sorry,” Abby said firmly. “I love all of you, but I have made up my mind. I’m walking over to Rothwell Court at once to speak with Lady Hester.”

Turning on her heel, she departed the drawing room.

The squalling of the baby followed Abby down the corridor and into the entry hall with its ticking casement clock and the ancient umbrella stand in the corner. She half expected one or another of her siblings to come scurrying to stop her. But no one did. They likely were banking on the hope that she would be turned down for the post.

And she might well be. But a lack of experience wasn’t what worried her.

Rather, she feared that Lady Hester would seek the duke’s permission before hiring a new governess for his sister. Somehow, she would have to convince his aunt not to contact him, for he undoubtedly would deny her application. In truth, had she known of any suitable employment other than at the Court, she would have vastly preferred it.

Lifting her straw bonnet from a hook on the wall, Abby tied the blue ribbons beneath her chin. Never in her life had she taken such a bold step. Never had she abandoned her role of caregiver to the family. Never had she indulged her desire to earn a wage of her own. The prospect of leaving the confines of her childhood home felt both exhilarating and terrifying.

But her family could have no inkling of her true misgivings. They didn’t know that fifteen years ago, she and Maxwell Bryce had shared a clandestine romance. Or that he had abandoned her for the pleasures of London.


Copyright © 2019 by Barbara Dawson Smith