Authors: G.L. Snodgrass
The Reluctant Duke
Wet cobblestones echoed with the slap of her bare feet as the cold night air bit through her thin cotton nightgown. Turning and peering through the fog the young woman searched to see if she was followed. Her heart raced, beating so loud she was sure they would hear.
Was that movement, had they found her already? With a stomach turned to stone, she fled. Where in this town would ever be safe? How truly alone she was flashed through her mind as she tried to think of someone to help.
There was no one. No one powerful enough to stop him. London was lost to her.
Duty is like a double edged sword hanging over a man’s neck. It dictates everything.
Major Thomas Marshal’s horse slowly walked up the long path towards his new home. It had been a long ride from London. His back ached, and his leg screamed in protest.
“God, it’s worse than I thought,” he said to himself as he looked over the dark and imposing building.
Dead flower beds and fallen tree limbs made the area look like a neglected step-child. Chipped bricks, a broken window on one of the upper floors, at least a dozen little things showed significant neglect.
His stomach turned over with the thought of what lay before him.
Brookshire! At least one Prime Minister and two pirates had been born here. Kings and Queens had dined at its table. This old palatial estate was known throughout the Kingdom and most of Europe as the home of the Duke of Bathurst. Center of a vast estate with properties throughout Britain and the continent.
Squaring his shoulders, he sat tall in his saddle and waited. No one came out to greet him, no stable boy appeared to take his horse, and no footman in full livery scurried down the front steps.
“What’s the meaning of this,” he wondered aloud as his stomach turned over with the first inkling of worry. Sighing, he gingerly swung down from his horse and limped up the steps using his cane to rap against the heavy oaken door.
He paused, he waited. Still no one arrived. Heaving a heavy sigh again and shaking his head he slowly opened the door and crossed the threshold.
The house was huge. It always had been. Built in Elizabethan times with that typical Tudor thirst for function and efficiency. A memory of getting lost in the upper floors when he had been very young flashed through his mind. Of sliding down the banister when no one watched. There had been a few good things.
Glass windows allowed enough light to examine his surroundings. Solid English oak greeted him wherever he looked. Brown, a lot of brown, just like he remembered it. Clean, but old. Well-worn and showing its age.
Still no one came to greet him. The place was as empty as a mausoleum. The butler or footmen should be scurrying to take care of his needs. That tense feeling at the bottom of his belly didn’t go away. He could remember the house having dozens of staff, people to take care of every wish and whim of the old bastard.
A slight movement down the far hall caught his attention. Leaning on his cane, Thomas limped across the hardwood entryway where he spotted the prettiest rump he’d seen in a long time. A maid on her hands and knees was scrubbing the floor. Her beautiful rear end draped in a gray maid’s uniform shifted back and forth as she scoured with a brush.
“Freddy, if you tracked mud over my clean floor, I will butcher you alive,” the young maid said while she continued to push the brush back and forth across the floor.
He looked back to ensure he hadn’t tracked in any mud. He was able to relax when he saw a dirt free path behind him. Standing there, Thomas admired the view.
The young woman stopped scrubbing and looked over her shoulder then squealed.
“I’m sorry sir,” she said rising and giving a quick curtsy. “Can I help you? His Grace is not at home,” she added.
The Major examined the woman in front of him. Her face was flushed with exertion or embarrassment. Her hands were red and raw from the cold water and harsh lye. Even so, she was a very pretty little thing.
A stray blond strand of hair fell from her cap. Her dress was wet to the knees, and her sleeves were pushed up to exposed two graceful arms. A pity she was totally and completely forbidden to him. A deep regret passed through him at the thought.
“I am the new ‘His Grace,'” he answered.
The look of pure shock and opened mouth surprise on the maid’s pretty face almost made him smile.
“Please have the butler, housekeeper, and Cook join me in the study.”
Years of training had created an expert at hiding emotions. The last thing he was going to do was show the servants what he was feeling. Instead, he turned and slowly walked to what used to be his Grandfather’s study.
Thomas Marshall, His Grace, the Fourth Duke of Bathurst, Third Viscount of Readly, Baron Von Trolst of Saxony and former Major of Her majesty’s Coldstream Regiment of Foot sat at his Grandfather’s desk completely lost and unsure of himself. A rather strange and unusual feeling.
His stomach rebelled at the thought of what he was about to take on. The soul-crushing responsibility and the complete abandonment of any chance at peace.
Placing both hands palm down on the desk he looked out over the room. He was never supposed to be here. Not in this room, not in this chair. His eyes cataloged the contents of the room as he took in the moldy smells of leather, paper, and musty rugs. Sighing he relaxed his shoulders.
“Duty,” he mumbled to himself while shaking his head.
Six months ago he’d been lying in a field hospital with a French bullet in his leg. Nine years of fighting in Egypt, across the Peninsula, through France and into Belgium and he’s wounded on the last day of the last battle of the war.
Laying there on the straw in that pest-ridden hospital, he’d thought that fighting with the doctors over whether to amputate or not had been the toughest thing he’d ever have to face. He now knew there were harder mountains to climb.
A soft knock at the door and the pretty maid stepped in followed by what appeared to be a very young footman and an older, heavyset woman he remembered as the cook.
“Yes?” he said, waiting patiently.
“Excuse me, Your Grace,” said the pretty maid, her gaze shifting back and forth between her companions and then to him.
His breath hitched, what eyes, he hadn’t realized how striking they were. The deepest blue, almost violet. They brought color and beauty to the world. What is this woman doing here as a maid? Her face, her figure, those eyes! She could command any price, demand any conditions and most men would bend to her wishes just to possess her. He was so nonplussed that he missed her first few words
“… tell you earlier, the Butler, Mr. Evans and the housekeeper Mrs. Fischer left over three months ago,” She said looking down at her feet. Once she was done she quietly backed up to join the other two servants.
He got up from the desk and limped towards them, resting his weight on the damn walking stick.
“What do you mean, they left. Where’d they go?” he asked, dumbfounded. There had been no mention of this at the solicitor’s office yesterday.
“They eloped, sir.”
“What!” The Major turned Duke barked.
“Yes sir,” The young maid said, cringing.
“Well, they didn’t have to leave. I’m sure they could have continued, even as a married couple … Um, I assume that they eloped with each other that is.”
“Yes sir, but I don’t think that’s why they left sir,” she said, raising her eyes to meet his.
“You don’t, then why did they leave, and …” suddenly realizing something, “Where’s the rest of the staff,” he asked, not wanting to hear the answer.
“They also left, in fact, the Butler Mr. Evans, told them too, sir.”
“He did? Why?”
He looked at the two other staff members trying to gauge the validity of what he was being told. Each of them nodded, confirming his worst fears. Clenching his jaw, he returned to concentrating on what she was saying. He had to fight with himself to not get lost in those eyes.
“Mr. Evans told them that if they weren’t going to get paid, they didn’t have to stay and that they should look for other arrangements. In fact, he prepared letters of recommendations for each of the staff, sir.”
She didn’t cringe at all, well not much. He’d been told that he could intimidate a bear. Seasoned sergeants had quaked at the thought of bringing him bad news. She wouldn’t have been the first to tremble. Instead, she’d looked him square in the face and told him his staff had deserted because they hadn’t been properly taken care of.
The fact that he hadn’t known that he even had a staff was beside the point and did not solve the issue.
He’d met with the solicitors and bankers in London immediately upon returning from the France. They’d shown him the accounts. There was more money than Midas ever dreamed of. Granted, most of it was all tied up in court and land and what not. But there should have been more than enough to pay the staff. Obviously there wasn’t anyone here to oversee the minor detail of ensuring people got paid.
A wave of guilt swept over him.
Putting it aside to deal with later he reminded himself that what he thought was important might not be viewed the same way in some London banker’s office.
Running a hand through his hair, he studied the maid’s two companions. “Mrs. Morgan? Isn’t it?”
“Yes Your Grace,” the cook replied with a small curtsy.
“I remember your excellent raspberry tarts.”
The large woman smiled and blushed obviously surprised that he would remember after all these years.
“And you sir,” he addressed the young footman. “You must be the famous ‘Freddy” I’ve heard so much about.” This time, the pretty maid blushed slightly.
“Yes Sir, Freddy Goodwin, sir,” he said as he bowed at the waist.
“Well Goodwin, fix your top button and then take my horse to the stable and have …, do we have any stable hands?”
“Yes sir, Old Jack, is still here,” he said, his fingers shaking as he fixed his top button.
“Then have ‘Old Jack’ care for my horse, I’ll be out to check on him later.”
“Right away Your Grace,” Freddy said, looking relieved to be able to escape.
“And you are?” The new Duke asked the pretty maid
“Gwen, Your Grace,” she answered, giving a quick curtsy.
Was that a hesitant answer, he wondered, and that curtsy. He studied her closely, her intelligence was obvious, and she sounded educated. Not at all like a common downstairs maid.
While he didn’t have a lot of experience with pretty maids, something wasn’t right. She didn’t shy away, but she wasn’t forthcoming with information either. Her ability to look him in the eye and hold his stare was unusual, but then everything around here was unusual.
“Well Gwen, Mrs. Morgan, What’s been going on here?” He asked,
The two women looked at each other; Mrs. Morgan said, “Sir, I have a meat pie that is due to come out of the oven, and I was hoping to start some raspberry tarts. I’m sure that Gwen here can answer all of your questions. She’s been taking care of everything since that bas… I am sorry, since Mr. Evans left.”
“Of course Mrs. Morgan, you are dismissed,” he said.
“Thank you, Your Grace,” the cook said, curtsied and gave Gwen a look of apology as she left.
He focused on the maid again, God those eyes. He had to be very careful here. He knew next to nothing about being a Duke, but he did know that one did not dally with the help. Any man who did so was a cad and a scoundrel. A man without honor. One of those unwritten rules, and like the military, in society unwritten rules were more strictly enforced than the written ones.
Leaning on his cane, he returned to his Grandfather’s … no, it was now his desk.
“Please have a seat Gwen, this may take a while.” Strange, he thought, one did not normally instruct a servant to sit down. Why did he feel uncomfortable sitting while she stood? It was a thought he did not wish to explore. When he reached his chair, he turned and saw that she hadn’t moved.
“That was not a request, please sit down.”
“Yes sir” she answered and scurried to a seat across the desk.
She gracefully sat. Everything she did was graceful; even that scurry to the chair. Again, why was this woman here?
He studied her. She appeared to be about twenty-one years old. Petit, a few inches over five feet, blond hair that kept trying to escape from her maid’s cap. It was the eyes that struck him, bluer, and deeper than any he had ever seen. They reminded him of a high mountain lake on a beautiful summer’s day.
Her figure was exceptional, the dress a little tighter than the normal uniform, but it did nothing to distract from her perfect feminine curves. God, get your mind on your duty, focus.
“So Gwen, what happened?” He said calmly, folding his hands and resting them on the desk, determined to remain calm.
Whatever happened it wasn’t her fault, in fact, it was more than likely his fault for not being here to solve everything. He mustn’t take it out on her he reminded himself, determined to withhold his parade ground voice.
She jumped a little when he asked his question. Her eyes narrowed as she studied him for a second before deciding to go on.
“Sir, the old Duke was sick for a long time,” she began hesitantly. “And though I was only a downstairs maid, I think he was not always aware of what was happening. We must be forgiving his problems at the end sir.”
My god is she defending the bastard. The old man would be turning over in his grave if he knew that a lowly downstairs maid was sticking up for him. It said something that the only person who’d ever defended the old man was a maid who barely knew him.
“Please go on,” Thomas said.