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Excerpt from
Last Duke Standing
Chapter 1

The calamitous intelligence that would redirect the course of Lord Alex Haversham’s life was delivered to him while he sat in the library of his family’s home. He and his boyhood friend Sinjin—Lord Slade—had come to Gosingham Hall not to partake of his ducal brother’s shooting party but to draft penal reform legislation. Upon this frosty March morning, the members of the shooting party had departed while he and Sinjin debated the merits of transporting a man for depriving a hare of its life.

When the butler entered the chamber, Alex hardly looked up from the vellum upon which he was writing. Mannings cleared his throat and prefaced his remark with, “Your grace.”

Had the servant’s advanced years stolen away his faculties? Granted, Alex did vastly resemble his brother, the eighth Duke of Fordham, but Mannings had never in Alex’s nine and twenty years confused the two siblings. Alex directed his attention to the butler.

Something was dreadfully wrong. Mannings’ face had gone ashen, his hands trembled, and his voice quivered. “It’s your brother.”

Alex’s heartbeat hammered. In the span of a second he linked It’s your brother to the fact the butler had addressed him—the younger brother—as “your grace.” Dear Lord! Freddie must be . . . He eyed Mannings. “Dead?”

The butler nodded solemnly.

How could Freddie be gone? It hurt like the devil.

It was a moment before the new duke was cognizant enough to inquire about his brother’s demise.

“Your brother has apparently died in his sleep, your grace.”

Alex stood. “It can’t be! I must see him.”

“He’s still in his bedchamber. A footman is staying with him.”

“Has a surgeon been called?”

 “I . . . I saw no need to send for one. The duke was clearly dead.”

Alex nodded. He and Sinjin started up the broad staircase. As they approached the ducal bedchamber, Alex’s gut clenched. His heartbeat roared. He did not want to step into the chamber. He wanted to open that door to a light-filled room where Freddie was strutting in front of a looking glass, admiring his well-tailored riding clothes and shiny boots. Of course, his cravat would have been tied to perfection, and nary a hair on his head would be out of place. Unlike Alex, Freddie had put great stock in appearances.

Alex froze. A feeling of agonizing grief flooded him. God, but he wished Freddie would be preening before that looking glass.

Sinjin patted him on the back. “I know this is going to be difficult. Allow me to go first.” He opened the door.

Alex drew a deep breath and strode into the darkened chamber, fighting back tears. Even when he’d been on the battlefields in Spain surrounded by the stench of death—the deaths of young men under his command—he’d not cried. Crying was for women. He was determined not to let the tears spill now.

He saw the bed first. It was swathed in crimson silk, and a youthful footman in crimson livery stood at watch beside the huge bed. When the young man recognized Alex, he effected a somber expression, his gaze flicking to Freddie’s body.

Since they’d been young lads, everyone had always remarked that Freddie and Alex looked almost like twins, but as Alex looked at his brother now, only the same dark golden locks resembled his. Any healthy glow that had shown in Freddie’s skin was now pallid and unnatural, like a wax figure. A swift glance at his brother’s lifeless face was all Alex could tolerate. He then glared at Freddie’s hands.

Someone—had it been Mannings?—had folded his hands over his chest. Alex slowly reached out to touch his brother’s fingers. They felt like stones retrieved from the bed of a spring-fed stream. A lone tear trickled down Alex’s cheek. He wiped it before turning to Sinjin.

The two nodded and left the chamber.

* * *

Was there a curse on their family? First, his eldest brother had died of a strangulated hernia following a strenuous game of tennis in his second year as reigning duke.

Alex would be the fourth man in four years to hold the title Duke of Fordham. It wasn’t supposed to be that way. Not yet thirty years of age, Alex Haversham, the lowly third son, had suddenly been catapulted to the lofty title held by his esteemed father for nearly five decades and by his dead brothers less than two years each.

His hand gripping a glass of brandy, Alex faced his old friend Sinjin across the library desk. Alex reeled from the realization that his brother was dead. Freddie was just a year Alex’s senior. “How can a man—a healthy man of thirty—die in his sleep? God knows he didn’t share the many vices for which I’m noted. I feel so beastly that I’d been out of charity with Freddie.”

Sinjin nodded sympathetically. “Don’t beat up on yourself because you two didn’t see eye to eye. We’re all gentlemen enough to preserve gentility even when we disagree about matters political. Your brother knew you loved him.”

“I hope to God he did.” Alex’s mind wandered back to these past several months and the estrangement that festered between the brothers after Freddie refused to support Alex’s Parliamentary campaign. How he wished he could turn back the clock and let his brother know that it mattered not whether they were on opposite benches. A brother was a brother. He swallowed over the lump in his throat.

Now he had no brothers.

Though he’d never been as close to his brothers as he was to Sinjin and Harry Wycliff—the two fellows with whom he’d shared everything during their ten years together at Eton—the three Haversham brothers had always been united by affection for one another, for their parents, and for their adored sisters. All gone now, except for the girls. His stomach twisted at the very idea of breaking such heart-wrenching news to their sisters.

And what about Freddie’s betrothed? Alex drew a deep breath. “I shall have to break the distressing intelligence to Lady Georgiana.”

“I wouldn’t want to be the one to have to tell the lady,” Sinjin said.

Alex was well aware that marrying a duke was every lady’s ambition. He cringed at the notion of being besieged by mothers trying to foist their insipid daughters on him. Matrimony—his specifically—had never held allure.

He’d always thought the reason Freddie had become betrothed to Lady Georgiana was because a duke was expected to ensure the succession.

He wondered if Lady Georgiana had been in love with Freddie or in love with the idea of being a duchess. Regardless, he dreaded telling the lady about the death of her betrothed.

* * *

That afternoon the solicitor arrived and was shown to the library where Alex was attempting to inure himself to the pain of Freddie’s loss with bountiful portions of his brother’s best Madeira.

“Ah, Waterman. Good of you to come,” Alex said. “Do help yourself.” His hand waved to the table of glasses and decanters. While the solicitor was pouring his wine, Alex looked at Sinjin. “Lord Slade, I should like to present Mr. Waterman to you. He’s long been solicitor to the Dukes of Fordham.”

Mr. Waterman set down the leather case he was carrying, the men shared greetings, then Alex asked the solicitor to be seated.

“Your grace,” Waterman said, “I’m so sorry for your unimaginable loss. I shall endeavor to do everything in my power to help you ascend to your new position.”

“I know that all the properties will come to me, but I particularly wanted to learn of any bequests my brother has made so that I can honor them. Since my brother and I were not terribly close, I was not privy to his plans. In fact, I haven’t even met the woman to whom he’s betrothed.”

“I have taken the liberty of bringing your brother’s will.” Waterman reached into his leather case and took out a sheet of velum. “As you know, even though he was a young man, I encouraged him to make his will as soon as he ascended—as I will encourage you to do.”

Alex’s gut plummeted. I am the last duke. Their family must be cursed. Would he be dead like his brothers before he was thirty? He nodded stiffly.

Waterman handed him the will. “You will see your brother had but three bequests. He left two hundred to his valet, two hundred a year to a Mrs. Langston, and he requested that Lady Georgiana Fenton be in charge of his personal papers.”

Alex found himself wondering if those personal letters might include correspondence between Freddie and his mistress, the stage actress Mrs. Langston. How peculiar that Freddie’s betrothed might read letters from his mistress.

The solicitor frowned, then lowered his voice to reverent tones. “We were to meet this week and draw up the marriage contracts.”

Another stab of pain.

Alex eyed Sinjin. “We go to Lady Georgiana in the morning.”

This would be worse than writing to the bereaved parents of his soldiers. This would be face to face.

* * *

“I declare, Georgiana, if you keep going out of doors without your bonnet, the duke will take you for a gypsy, and you’ll be jilted.”

The young lady being admonished eyed her mother as the dowager sat beside her escritoire, gripping the hilt of the cane that she now depended upon as a babe its mother’s milk. Even though she was fifty years of age, Lady Hartworth was still a beautiful woman. She’d been the most highly sought beauty of the ton the year she came out. The delicate perfection of her face was matched by the delicacy of her body. A miniature Venus she had been called. Time had changed her little since Gainsborough had painted her thirty years earlier with mounds of powdered hair, hair that now looked much the same, courtesy of gentle aging.

“If Fordham were that abominably shallow,” her daughter said, “then I simply would not have him for a husband.”

“But, dearest, he’s a duke. One can overlook a myriad of faults in a duke.”

“But, unlike you, who was not born to an aristocratic family, I do not stand in awe of titled personages. I believe, my dearest mother, you were even in awe of Papa, just because he was the Marquess of Hartworth.”

“I was, and it’s glad I am that you’re marrying a king.”

Georgiana’s eyes widened, and then she started giggling. It wasn’t kind to laugh at Mama after her recent affliction, but Georgiana was powerless to stop. “Did you mean to say duke?”

Lady Hartworth slapped her forehead. “Did I say king?”

Georgiana nodded.

“I did mean to say duke.” Lady Hartworth sighed. “It’s always right in my mind, but it just doesn’t come out right.”

“It will, in time.” Mama had nearly made a full recovery. Georgiana thought back to those frightening days when everyone—including Mama—had been expecting her mother to die—a prospect Georgiana fought with every breath she drew.

“Though a beauty such as you should have been able to marry a king—not that you would have been the right age for our Regent when he married back in the nineties,” Lady Hartworth said. “Still, I don’t understand why the Royals can’t pluck their brides from the ranks of England’s most noble families. Your father, God rest his noble soul, owned more land and had more . . . subjects, or servants, than most of those confounded German principalities and duchies that populate Europe’s royal houses.”

“Pray, Mama, do not say such things! I assure you I have no desire to be queen of anywhere.” Georgiana’s eyes narrowed. “What are those brown splotches on your gown?”

“Lady Hartworth groaned. “Chocolate. The Hellions. I permitted them to visit my chambers as I read the morning post and sipped my chocolate.”

The hellions were Georgiana’s brother’s young son and daughter. “You cannot expect children under the age five not to make messes.”

“But one can expect obedience. I expressly forbade them to jump upon my bed—or any bed—but they ignored me. Their dim-witted mother permits them to do so.”

Which was one of the reasons why Georgiana had consented to marry and remove herself from her sister-in-law’s sphere. Dim witted aptly described Hester. How smoothly Alsop ran when Mama was mistress here and now it bore a remarkable resemblance to a lunatic asylum. Which was a strong impetus to marrying and being mistress of her own home.

In the six years since her debut, Georgiana had spurned every man who attempted to court her. Entirely too particular, she had come to the conclusion she was incapable of a grand passion but had been assured love would come once marriage united her to a life’s companion.

Since it was well past time for her to marry, Freddie was the most worthy candidate. He was most earnestly attached to her, and he was one of the few men in the kingdom Mama would deem worthy of her only daughter.

Georgiana—without a bonnet—kissed her mother’s cheek, snatched her riding crop, and headed toward the front door. Her groom should be waiting there with her mount.

To her great surprise, when she whisked through the open door at the home’s entrance, she faced her betrothed, who was giving her bay a great deal of attention. He was accompanied by a man she had never before seen.

“Freddie!” she greeted, a smile on face. Then as she looked into his somber face, she realized this man was not her intended. This must be his radical younger brother, Lord Alex. She’d been told they looked remarkably alike.

Her brows lowered. “You’re not Freddie. You must be . . .” Her pulse sped up. From his grim expression, it was obvious he had come bearing grave news. “Something’s happened to Freddie.”

“Is there somewhere we can talk?” he asked.

By now she was shaking. With a single nod, she led them into the entry corridor of well-worn wooden planks to the library where a fire smoldered in the hearth.

“Please, my lady,” said the man she presumed to be Lord Alex, “allow me to pour you a glass of brandy.” He strode to the tall table, claimed its only decanter, and started to pour the dark liquid into a glass.

Her heart pounding, all she could manage was a nod. When he handed her the cool glass. she took a long sip, then eyed his melancholy face and spoke with great solemnity. “He’s dead.”

The new duke nodded. “Permit me to introduce myself. I am his brother Alex.”

It was a moment before she could gather her composure. “Was he shot?”

“No. I don’t understand it, given his heretofore excellent health, but he died in his sleep.”

She could not believe it. She’d seen him just days before his shooting party. Full of life, he seemed much younger than his thirty years. “I refuse to believe him dead. I must see him.”

Alex Haversham, the reigning Duke of Fordham, lowered his brows. “I assure you, he’s quite dead.”

She clapped her hands over her ears. “I refuse to listen to you, your grace. I must see your brother.” Her mother would have apoplexy all over again if she heard her stubborn daughter addressing a duke in such a manner.

“I return to Gosingham now. Should you like to accompany me?”

“Indeed I would.”



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