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Authors: The Duchesss Next Husband

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It was not his clothing that gave away his condition as much as the sallowness of his normally tanned complexion and the red streaks in the whites of his eyes. He looked every inch the man suffering from the aftermath of too much alcohol.

“I am fine, Mother. Just tired,” he said. Meeting Miranda’s gaze, he seemed to be waiting for her to reveal the truth. When she simply nodded, he continued, “I am not certain of my plans over these next few weeks. I must go to Windmere Park to deal with some…business, and I do not know when I will return.”

He saw his wife’s eyes narrow at his hesitation and waited for Miranda’s questions. They did not come. But of course not. Miranda had been trained as the perfect lady by his mother, and would never question him in
public. And since being under the dowager’s tutelage, she did not question him in private, either.

How would she react to the news of her impending widowhood? Would she react at all? Now was not the time to present such information. First, Adrian knew, he must sort through the practicalities and legalities of what his death would cause, and then he would speak to her about it. Or mayhap the physicians had the right of it—better not to know too far ahead of such a dire circumstance?

“When Parliament is in session? I thought you were keen on speaking to some of the issues,” his mother said. He could see that she definitely wanted to press him on this, but her unwavering control over something as trite as curiosity did not wane.

With her steely gaze on him, he tried to organize his thoughts in spite of the pounding in his head, the churning of his stomach and the stinging in his eyes. Dragging a hand through his hair, he took a deep breath before answering.

“There are estate concerns which I must resolve, Mother. I will miss only a few sessions while protecting our family’s interests in the north.” He played the trump card in his hand—family matters—ruthlessly.

Then, to his horror, a cough welled up deep inside his lungs. Walking to the door that opened to the gardens, and trying to appear nonchalant, he lifted his hand to his mouth to cover the worst of it. For once, Providence heard his plea and no more followed the first.

“Would you like me to accompany you?” Miranda’s soft voice drew his attention, but he kept his back turned. “I have no pressing engagements here in town.”

Had she any idea of how brandy-faced he’d been last evening? He remembered cursing his fate in rather loud and vulgar language…had she heard? With so many uncertainties ahead of him, Adrian decided he should make this trip alone.

“There is no reason for you to give up the Season at its height for the dull country, my dear. I shan’t be away for more than a week at the most.”

He faced her now and noticed the brightness of her blue eyes and the fullness of her lips as her mouth formed a moue, as though she was disappointed in his decision to go alone. Any reply she would have made was interrupted when his mother coughed lightly and stared at Miranda. Some unspoken communication was shared in that moment by the two women, and he watched as Miranda sat up straighter, if that were possible, and closed her mouth, her lips now forming a tight line.

A memory flashed through his mind and he saw Miranda at their first meeting. The only daughter of one of their neighbors, a wealthy landowner with a minor title, she had been invited to a country dance at his family’s estate. Drawn by her vivacious personality and her welcoming smile, he had asked her to dance. He could still see her dark blond curls, hanging down to her shoulders, shimmering and gleaming in the candlelight as they’d
danced. She’d been generous in gifting him with her smiles, and they had laughed through the steps of the dance, then gone in to supper together.

Her standing, with the sizable portion she would bring to him in their marriage settlement, was deemed high enough for his status as the second son of a duke, and their marriage was accomplished the next year, even before his brother and the heir of the family married. Shrugging off the past that could not be changed, Adrian realized that he was staring at her.

Uncomfortable with what haunted him from his past and what faced him in the near future, Adrian nodded at his mother first and then his wife. “I fear I have much to accomplish before I can be on my way.” Retreating into good manners, he bowed to them and walked to the door, which was opened for him by a footman. “Good day to you both,” he said as he left, feeling for the first time a certain trepidation at leaving Miranda in the clutches of the dowager.

Chapter Three

O
nce Adrian left, there was nothing else to say. The dowager would choke before admitting to a curiosity about her son’s motives or activities. Their weekly encounter was at an end, and Miranda tried not to let her anticipation at being released from the dowager’s presence show. She placed the half-empty cup of tea back on the table in front of her and stood. Tempted to demonstrate her precedence over the dowager, Miranda instead decided that respect for her elders should win over her internal desire for the deference that should be afforded her due to her title.

Until Miranda produced an heir, or even a daughter, the dowager would see her as the still-less-than-acceptable wife of a second son. No power on earth could change her regard, or lack of it. Lowering her head in a courteous bow of sorts, Miranda walked to the door of the drawing room and hesitated only a moment as Cordelia’s ever-efficient butler pulled it open.

Every week, after such a visit, Miranda found herself fighting the urge to tear her bonnet from her head and run screaming down the street like a madwoman bound for Bedlam. Years of practice won out and she stepped across the walk and climbed into the waiting carriage. As she took her seat and Fisk entered and sat opposite her, only a slight tremor in her clasped hands belied the blank expression she knew she could affect when needed.

And it was needed now.

 

“When you walk and sit as though you were wearing cast-iron stays, it tells me you have visited the dowager.”

Miranda tried not to laugh, but the irreverent attitude of her friend ruined her efforts. Letting out an uncommon giggle, she smiled and removed the bonnet from her head.

“My stays are of the regular sort, I assure you, Sophie,” she said, still smiling as she sat down on the paisley-covered chair. “Though I do confess to never allowing myself to relax when in the presence of Her Grace.”

Her schoolroom friend held out her second cup of tea this morning, but this one Miranda looked forward to enjoying in informal company. Only a viscountess, Sophie was not considered by the dowager to be an appropriate companion for the Duchess of Windmere. But their friendship had been forged in the trials and challenges of the Hayton Academy for Young Ladies. The
teachers there, as well as the owners, were as formidable as Her Grace, Cordelia, Duchess of Windmere and, without knowing it, they had prepared Miranda well for the constant struggle of living up to such lofty expectations.

However, where Sophie’s marriage had become one of joy and the felicity of a good bond, Miranda’s had not quite lived up to her girlish hopes and dreams. The Viscountess Allendale’s life was filled by an attentive husband, two lovely sons, a London house and their country estates. The emptiness of her own was glaring by comparison. Something must have shown through, for Sophie reached out now and patted her hand.

“A rough visit, then?” Sophie offered a smile. “It could be a blessing somehow that Her Grace is dependable for something. If you are looking to ruin someone’s happy mood, you certainly know where to send them.”

Sophie’s green eyes softened with concern. Pushing her loosely-gathered brown hair behind one shoulder, Sophie shook her head at Miranda, undermining her own belief in the words of rationalization she offered.

“I cannot imagine what has me so blue-deviled today,” Miranda replied. Sipping the tea, she waited for her nerves to settle. “Her Grace was no different than any other time.”

“Will she return to the country soon? I do not remember her staying in town this long before.”

She shook her head. “I fear not. Juliet was presented and is having her first season. Her Grace will persevere
until she has secured a suitable offer for her cherished goddaughter.”

Surprised at the bitterness that entered her voice, she continued, “But Windmere is returning to the country.”

“Windmere? Leaving while Lords is sitting? I did not think he shirked his duty.” Sophie looked at her and tilted her head. The narrowing of her gaze was never a good sign for Miranda. “Something else is wrong here. I can feel it.”

“As I said, I am simply out of sorts this morning.”

Miranda smoothed her hair and leaned farther back into the seat cushions. Sophie on the scent of something new and intriguing was more persistent than Lord Bernard’s champion hounds. Miranda should have gone directly back home after the encounter with her husband. One look at the intensity on her friend’s face told her that it was too late for evasive maneuvers.

“What happened with Windmere?” Sophie’s voice was soft with concern.

“He got drunk and missed dinner….” Miranda stopped herself before revealing the more private appointment he’d missed.

“Men always drink. I’ve seen Windmere drink a fair amount before. That is really not surprising.”

Miranda looked at her friend. “He was completely foxed. Carrying on in his chambers, using vulgar language and throwing things. Even his valet tried to shield me from it. I do not remember him ever in this condition.”

Frowning, she thought back to the words he’d yelled, but his efficient servant’s coughing had covered most of
them. She smoothed her skirts over her legs before looking back at Sophie. Skipping over the more personal details, she went on. “Then this morning he unexpectedly announced that he was leaving for Windmere Park and would be gone for some days.”

Sophie stood and walked over to her chair. Pulling a small stool alongside, she sat down on it and took her hand.

“Did he harm you, Miranda? You may tell me not to inquire, but did he hurt you during his attentions?”

“Sophie! How can you ask such a question?” Miranda tugged her hand free and moved back from the viscountess. “Windmere would never raise a hand to me.”

“I wasn’t speaking of his hands, Miranda. If he were drunk when he visited you for…conjugal intimacies, he could have done much harm. Are you well?”

She could feel the heat of embarrassment enter her cheeks. They had never spoken this candidly about such a topic, and Miranda was not certain how Sophie even knew.

“Come, Miranda. I know what your life is like since your husband became Duke of Windmere,” Sophie whispered more softly. “You both take the responsibilities and duties to the limit of serious, and your days, as set out by the dowager’s designs, are ruled by conformity and regularity. You once let it slip that he visited your bed on Thursdays, so it is not so unusual to expect it would be every Thursday.”

“He did not visit last evening.”

“Did he visit
her?

“The dowager?” Sophie’s eyes narrowed and she shook her head. Miranda then realized of whom she spoke: Windmere’s mistress. “Of that, I have no idea.”

“Have you told him that you care?” Sophie asked.

“I do not know what you mean. I care not that he has a mistress. ’Tis the way of things.”

“John does not have one.”

Miranda glanced at Sophie and met her direct gaze. The dowager had made it quite clear that men of Windmere’s rank were expected to have a woman available to satisfy their baser needs. And that it was no concern of Miranda’s. Although their marriage had started out differently, Adrian’s move to the title had changed many, many things, including the physical side of their marriage.

“It is unseemly for a wife to…” Miranda began, quoting one of the dowager’s favorite admonitions.

“It is unseemly for a wife to ignore these signs of which you speak and act as though nothing is wrong. Miranda…” Sophie took her hand once more “…I would not encourage you to investigate this unless I was convinced that you are interested in your husband’s well-being and that of your marriage. You were so filled with life and anticipation when you first married. You had such a
joie de vivre,
and I thought that Windmere returned your feelings.”

“That was so long ago, Sophie, and so much has changed between us,” she said with resignation.

Any hopes she’d had had been eroded by each new responsibility and new duty of being a duchess married
to an important peer of the realm. So many depended on him that she’d learned to stand back and become what he needed the most: a wife who understood her place. Now, they were both so changed from the man and woman who’d stood before the rector at Windmere House and exchanged marriage vows. And she was not certain that either of them could go back to the people they had been, even if they wanted to.

“If that were true, you would not be in the least bit perturbed by anything he did or said or
did not do.

Sighing, Miranda stood and walked toward the door of the drawing room. If nothing else, she was curious. Surely it was only that? Gathering up her bonnet from where she had tossed it, she placed it back on her head, securing the ribbons beneath her chin, and tugged on her gloves.

“I will return home and see if he has left yet.”

“A fair beginning. Call upon me if you need any assistance. Anything,” Sophie called out to her as the door was opened.

Sophie had done enough already, Miranda suspected. As her carriage moved through the streets of Mayfair toward home, she began to silently practice the words she would use to inquire as to any difficulties the duke might be facing. It had been so long since she’d permitted herself to ask personal questions of him that she feared even knowing how to phrase them.

And what if the problem involved Windmere’s mistress? Should Miranda simply turn away and let it be?
How could she overcome the embarrassment and humiliation of having brought up such a personal concern?

News from the butler, however, gave her all the time in the world. Adrian had left word that he was out for the remainder of the day, would return very late this evening—no need to wait for him—and that he and his valet would leave for Windmere Park at dawn. She could send word of any problems to him there, through his secretary.

How exactly did one ask one’s husband through an intermediary the types of questions she was considering? Miranda spent most of that and the next few days pondering her next move and then decided that, in the proper way of things, a wife did not ask. But she also decided that she would. If there was any chance, no matter how slight, of peeling back the layers and reclaiming the man she’d married, it was worth the risks.

Three days after the duke left London for their estates in the north of England, the duchess received a note from her friend that caused her to send her own polite regrets to Lady Crispin and to the dowager. It would appear that neither the Duke nor Duchess of Windmere would be present for the ball on Saturday next, after all.

BOOK: Terri Brisbin
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