The Duke and His Duchess
Percival and Esther Windham had to beat the odds and face down gossip when their brief courtship resulted in marriage. Five years later, they have four children in their nursery, a ducal estate to care for, ailing family members needing care, and more trouble on the horizon than even a strong marriage might endure.
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“You’re young and have all your teeth.” George, His Grace, the Duke of Moreland made this state of affairs sound as if Percival had committed a double hanging felony. “If you swive this wife to death, you can always get another.”
Lord Percival Windham’s brothers reacted to the duke’s observation predictably. Tony shot Percy a look of commiseration while Peter—more properly the Marquis of Pembroke—pushed back from the card table.
“I find myself ready to retire,” Peter announced. He rose and bowed to the duke. “Your Grace, pleasant dreams.”
Peter’s younger brothers merited a nod, one conveying more than a touch of sympathy. On this matter at least, the heir to a dukedom could delegate dealing with an irascible old peer to the spares.
“You two are sorry company for an old man,” His Grace spat. “Fetch me a footman that I might preserve myself from the tedium to be endured when you won’t allow me so much as a finger of decent libation.”
Tony and Percy each got a hand under one of His Grace’s elbows and boosted the duke to his feet. Tony pushed the chair away, and then—only then—His Grace shook off his sons’ hold. “Think of me as you’re getting drunk yet again.” He glowered at each son in turn. “And I meant what I said, Percival. Your lady wife has dropped four bull calves in little more than five years of marriage. In my day, a gentleman didn’t trouble his wife beyond the necessary, and certainly not when he could afford to take his rutting elsewhere. Her Grace would have agreed with me.”
Percival didn’t dignify that scold with a response, though Tony—brave man—murmured, “Goodnight, Papa,” as they handed the duke off to a stout, blank-faced footman.
When the door was closed and a thick silence had taken root, Percival went back to the table and started organizing the cards.
“He’s wrong, Perce.” Tony’s path took him to the decanter. “Her Grace would not agree. She’d say Esther’s duty was to provide as many sons as you and the good Lord saw fit to get on her. Her Grace was a terror when it came to the succession.”
In Percival’s hands, the queen of diamonds turned up first. “The old boy may have a point. Esther has done her duty to the succession.”
And at what cost? She fell into bed exhausted each evening, though never once had Percival heard her complain.
With decanter in hand, Tony took himself and a glass of brandy to the side of the game room where darts were played. A stout surface of Portuguese cork surrounded the scarred circular target, the pits and gashes growing fewer closer to the center.
“I would better prosecute a game of darts were I in my cups,” Tony muttered, taking aim. “You will not be the death of your wife, Perce. His Grace is mourning, is all, and not going about it very well.”
Percival kept his hands busy organizing the cards, all the pips going in the same direction, from highest to lowest, suit by suit. “He’s not only mourning, he’s dying. Can a man mourn his own incipient passing?”
Tony shot him a look. “You’re sounding ducal again. Incipient passing? I say it’s Peter we have to worry about most. His Grace has enough spleen left to live to be a hundred. He and Her Grace had a few cordial years there toward the end—largely as a function of your success populating the nursery, if you ask me.”
When Percival had the deck stacked in perfect order, he cut and shuffled, then shuffled again. The snap and riffle of the cards soothed him, putting him in mind of years spent soldiering—and shivering—in Canada. “How long has it been since Peter ventured outside?”
A dart went sailing toward the wall only to land several inches from the target. “Damn. He sits out on the terrace when the weather’s fair. Once a man turns forty, he’s entitled to a more sedentary schedule.”
Sedentary? In his youth, Peter had been a robust, blond giant. Heir to a dukedom, he’d been the biggest prize on the marriage mart in every sense. When he’d departed on his Grand Tour, half the ladies in London had gone into a decline. And now… Peter’s blond hair was going silver, his complexion suggested he abused arsenic when he never touched the stuff. Worst of all, Peter looked at his half-grown daughters like a man who’d reconciled himself to heartbreak.
Percival reorganized the cards, this time starting with hearts. “Maybe it’s Peter’s incipient death His Grace is mourning.”
“This is maudlin talk, Perce, and you’ve hardly touched a drop all night.” Tony fired a second dart toward the wall, only to have it bounce off the edge of the target. “Rotten, bloody luck.”
“Rotten, bloody aim. You need to focus, Anthony.”
And Percival might well need a mistress. The notion that his father could be right was loathsome.
“You need to get drunk and go swive your lady,” Anthony countered. “Moreland’s carping because Her Grace booted him out of her bedroom once I came along. He doesn’t want to see you and Esther come to the same sorry pass.”
The things Tony knew—and the things he let come flying out of his fool mouth. “Esther has given us an heir, a spare, and a pair of Tonys,” Percival observed. “Perhaps there’s been enough swiving in my marriage.”
A Tony. In Moreland family parlance, any son younger than the spare was a Tony, a hedge against bad luck, and a prudent course every titled family with sense followed. Some were blessed with an abundance of Tonys.
For the third dart, Tony set his drink aside, toed an invisible line on the oak parquet floor, and narrowed his gaze at the target. “You love your wife, Percival. You fell arse over teakettle for her the moment you laid eyes on her. You’d break Esther’s heart if you took your favors elsewhere, and I don’t give a hang what Polite Society, senile dukes, or their departed wives have to say on the matter.”
The dart flew true, hitting the bull’s eye with a decisive thunk.
People tended to underestimate blond, amiable Tony, and Percival had a hunch Tony liked it that way. “Is Gladys carrying again?”
Tony pulled two darts from the cork and picked the third up from the floor. “One suspects she is.” His smile was bashful, pleased, and a trifle scared.
“Can’t one simply ask his wife? The girl is forthright to a fault, Anthony.” Something Percival adored about Gladys, especially when the rest of the family shied away from difficult truths like a royal court fleeing the plague.
“One cannot.” Tony put the darts on the mantel and set his half-full glass beside them. “One, as you well know, waits patiently for that happy day when one’s wife reposes her trust in one with news of an inchoate miracle, and then one prays incessantly for months, until said miracle is squalling in one’s nursery.”
In this, Tony was not the hale fellow well met, he was wise.
The ace of hearts was missing, which wasn’t possible, because the damned thing had been present and accounted for moments ago. Percival began at the top of the deck, thumbing through card by card. “Canada was good training for marriage, wasn’t it? Hazards on every hand, hardship, boredom…”
God in heaven, was that what his marriage had become?
“I get a decent complement of howling at the moon, or at my lady wife, so I’m content,” Tony said. “Believe I’ll give the girl my regards while the night is yet young.”
With fatuous smile firmly in place, Tony saluted and took his leave.
While Percival hunted in vain for the damned ace of hearts.
“I love you,” Esther Windham whispered to the fellow in her arms. “I will always love you, and love you better than any other lady loves you. I love my husband too.” Also better than any other lady loved him, though lately, that love had taken on a heaviness.
Esther’s regard for Percival had acquired an element of forbearance that troubled her, because it went beyond the patience any couple married five years endured with each other from time to time. Percival was a doting father, a dutiful son, a loving husband, and yet…
“Is he asleep?” Little Bart had crept to his mother’s side on silent feet—a surprising accomplishment for a lad who could shriek down the rafters with his glee and his ire. “Can we go yet?”
“Hush.” Esther leaned over and kissed the top of Bart’s head. He already hated when she did that. “You’ll wake the baby.”
Impatience crossed Bart’s cherubic features but he knew better than to commit the nursery equivalent of high treason. He was solid, stubborn, charming, and at present in line to become a Duke of Moreland. The charm and stubbornness would serve him well, though Esther had learned to steel herself against both. She rose with the baby and put wee Valentine in his crib, gave the nursemaid a smile—for the next hour at least, there would be peace in the nursery, provided neither the baby nor two-year-old Victor woke up—and extended her other hand to Gayle.
Gayle was not charming in the same way his brother was. He was serious, curious, and sweet natured. He and Bart got on famously, thank a merciful God.
“Will we sail boats?” Bart asked, yanking on Esther’s hand as they headed for the stairs. “We can do Viking burials again, can’t we? Will Papa come, too?”
“Papa is busy today, but yes, we can do Viking burials. Gayle, what would you like to do?”
This was her one afternoon a week to spend with the children, the one she and Percival had vowed and declared would be inviolate. The one the children looked forward to.
The one she used to look forward to, too.
“Pet the kitties.”
“A lovely notion.” Though Bart would scare most of the kitties away, all except the shameless old mamas who seemed to know a kitten favored by a child might find an easy life as a pantry mouser rather than the rigorous existence awaiting the barn cats.
When they reached the ground floor, Bart pelted off in the direction of the library, there to collect paper from the duke’s desk. Esther paused long enough to tell a footman—old Thomas—to have a brazier and some spills prepared for the services to be held at the stream.
Outside the library door, Gayle dropped her hand and peered up at her. He had beautiful green eyes, the same as Bart. Victor’s eyes were a slightly darker hue, and baby Valentine’s eyes had lost nearly all traces of their newborn blue.
Esther dropped to her knees. Gayle did not shout his sentiments, even in his most sanguine moods. “My dear?”
She pushed soft auburn curls away from his face. He’d been born blond, but his hair was darkening as he matured. He tolerated her affection silently, a little man more preoccupied with his inner world than most his age.
“If you could do anything you wanted to do this afternoon,” Gayle asked, “what would you do?”
Esther turned, braced her back against the wall, and slid to a sitting position. “I’m not sure.” This question, and her reply to it, caused a lump in her throat. Many things brought a lump to her throat. “I might take a nice long nap.”
She was treated to a frown that put her much in mind of her husband. “A nap isn’t fun. We’re supposed to have fun for our outings. Petting the kitties is fun.”
“You don’t like the Viking burials, do you?”
The frown did not dissipate. “Was Grandmama a Viking?”
In the way of little minds, he’d skipped across several ideas to connect two disparate concepts. He did this a lot, which fascinated Esther as it worried her.
“Gayle, we did not put your grandmother’s body on a ship, light the ship on fire, and send the ship out to sea. That was for great Viking warriors, for kings long ago and far away. Nobody does that anymore.”
“Grandpapa won’t go away on a ship?”
Esther pulled him into her lap, a warm, sturdy bundle of little boy full of questions and fears a mother could only guess at. He bore the scent of hay, suggesting some obliging footman had already stood guard over a sortie to the hay-mow, where the boys play highwaymen and pirates and Damned Upstart Colonials.
Why did little boys never play Dukes and Earls?
“His Grace will go to heaven when God sees fit to call him home. Grandpapa has lived a long, honorable life, and St. Peter will throw a great fete when His Grace strolls through the pearly gates.”
“Will Grandpapa need a footman to help him?”
Such worry in such a small body. “He will not. He will strut.”
This caused a smile. “Like Papa?”
“Like all of my menfolk.” Esther blew on the back of Gayle’s neck, making the sort of rude sound boys delighted in.
She thought he’d squirm away then, but he sighed, little shoulders heaving up with momentous thoughts, then down. “Will Uncle Peter strut when he goes to heaven?”
“He will strut, and he will shout to everybody that he has come home.” Dear Peter probably hadn’t shouted or strutted since Esther had met him five years ago.
Now Gayle did scramble to his feet. “Will I shout and strut when I go to heaven? Will I be as big as Bart?”
Esther rose, though it was an effort that left her a trifle light-headed. “You will carry on as loudly as anybody, and my guess is you will become very proficient at strutting. You are a Windham, after all. As for being as big as Bart, you are as big now as Bart was when he was your age.”
This concept, that Bart was merely half a lap ahead in the race to adult height, always pleased Gayle. “I want to make birds with my paper, not ships that burn.”
“We can do both.” Though Bart would want to throw rocks at the birds when they became airborne, and Gayle—in a perfect imitation of His Grace—would point out that burning ships was a waste of paper.
Esther followed her son into the library, where Bart—appropriately enough—was already seated at the desk, sturdy legs kicking the air as he folded paper into some semblance of ships.
While the boys argued halfheartedly about which was more fun—birds or ships—Esther sank into a chair and tried not to think about whether she’d be capable of strutting into heaven when her turn came.
No, she would not, though in heaven, she would get a decent nap. She would get as long a nap as ever she wished for.