Lady Celeste is very pleased to share the first chapter of The Trouble With Dukes by Grace Burrowes!
Enjoy the early Christmas gift from Grace and watch for Susan's review!
P.S. Don't you love the UK cover?
Miss Megan Windham is falling in love with Hamish MacHugh, the newly title Duke of Murdoch. Megan’s cousins, however, Westhaven, St. Just, and Valentine, will take an interest in her situation that closely resembles, well, meddling…
Gayle Windham, Earl of Westhaven was too self-disciplined to glance at the clock more than once every five minutes, but he could see the shadow of an oak limb start its afternoon march up the wall of his study. The remains of a beef sandwich sat on a tray at his elbow, and soon his youngest child would go down for a nap.
Westhaven brought his attention back to the pleasurable business of reviewing household expenses, though Anna’s accounting was meticulous. He obliged his countess’s request to look over the books because of the small insights he gained regarding his family.
They were using fewer candles, testament to Spring’s arrival and longer hours of daylight.
The wine cellar had required some attention, another harbinger of the upcoming social season.
Anna had spent a bit much on Cousin Megan’s birthday gift, but a music box was a perfect choice for Megan.
“You haven’t moved in all the months I’ve been gone,” said a humorous baritone. “You’re like one of those statues, standing guard through the seasons, until some obliging brother comes along to demand that you join him in the park for a hack on a pretty afternoon.”
Home safe. Devlin St. Just’s dark hair was tousled, his clothes wrinkled, his boots dusty, but he was once again, home safe.
The words were an irrational product of Westhaven’s memory, for his mind produced them every time he saw his older half-brother after a prolonged absence. Westhaven crossed the study with more swiftness than dignity, hand extended toward his brother.
“Good God, you stink, St. Just, and the dust of the road will befoul my carpets wherever you pass.”
St. Just took Westhaven’s proffered hand and yanked the earl close enough for a quick, back-thumping hug.
“I stink, you scold. Give a man a brandy while he befouls your carpets, and good day to you too.”
Westhaven obliged, mostly to have something to do other than gawk at his brother. Yorkshire was too far away, the winters were too long and miserable, and St. Just visited too infrequently, but every time he did visit, he seemed…. Lighter. More settled, more at peace. And if ever a man was happy to smell of horse, it was St. Just.
“I have whisky,” Westhaven said. “I’m told the barbarians to the north favor it over brandy.”
"If you had decent whisky, I might consider it, but you’re a brandy snob, so brandy it is. How are the children?”
Thank God for the topic of children, which allowed two men who’d missed each other terribly to avoid admitting as much.
“The children are noisy, expensive, and a trial to any parent’s nerves. Our parents come by, dispensing falsehoods regarding my own youth along with a surfeit of sweets. Then their graces parents swan off, leaving my kingdom in utter disarray.”
Westhaven passed St. Just a healthy portion of spirits, though being St. Just, he waited until Westhaven was holding his own glass.
“To kingdoms in disarray,” St. Just said, touching his glass to Westhaven’s. “Try uprooting your womenfolk and dragging them hundreds of miles on the king’s highway. Your realm shrinks to the proportions of one very unforgiving saddle. Rather like being on campaign.”
St. Just could do this now—make passing, halfway humorous references to his army days. For the first two years after he’d mustered out, he’d been unable to remain sober during a thunderstorm.
“Her ladyship is well?” Westhaven asked. “My Emmie is a saint,” St. Just countered, taking the seat behind Westhaven’s desk. “If you die, I want this chair.”
“Spare me your military humor. If I die, you and Valentine are guardians of my children.”
A dusty boot thunked onto the corner of Westhaven’s antique desk, the same corner upon which Westhaven’s own, much less dusty boots, were often propped, provided the door was closed.
"Val and I? You didn’t make Moreland their guardian?”
“His grace will intrude, meddle, advise, maneuver, interfere, and otherwise orchestrate matters as he sees fit, abetted by our lovely mother in all particulars. Putting legal authority over the children in your hands was my pathetic gesture toward thwarting the ducal schemes. You will, of course, oblige my guilt over this presumption by giving me a similar role in the lives of your children.”
St. Just closed his eyes. He was a handsome fellow, handsomer for having regained some of the muscle he’d had as a younger man.
“I can hear His Grace’s voice when you start braying about what I shall oblige and troweling on verbs in sextuplicate.”
“Is that a word?”
"Trowel, yes, a humble verb. Probably Saxon rather than Roman in origin.”
Westhaven pretended to savor his brandy, when he was in truth savoring the fact that his older brother would—in all his dirt—come to Westhaven’s establishment before calling upon the ducal household.
“Where is your countess, St. Just? She’s usually affixed to your side like a very pretty cocklebur.”
“Where’s yours?” St. Just retorted. “I dropped Emmie and the girls off at Louisa and Joseph’s, though I’m to collect them—”
The door opened, and a handsome dark-haired fellow sauntered in, Westhaven’s butler looking choleric on his heels.
“I come seeking asylum,” Lord Valentine said.
St. Just was on his feet and across the room almost before Val had finished speaking. The oldest and youngest Windham brothers bore a resemblance, both dark-haired, and both carrying with them a physical sense of passion. Valentine loved his music, St. Just his horses, and yet the brothers were alike in a way Westhaven appreciated more than he envied—mostly.
“You come seeking my good brandy,” Westhaven said, when Val had been properly embraced and thumped by St. Just. “Here.”
He passed Valentine his own portion and poured another for himself.
“We were about to toast our happy state of marital pandemonium,” St. Just said. “Or so Westhaven thinks. I’m in truth fortifying myself to storm the ducal citadel.”
Valentine took his turn in Westhaven’s chair. “I’d blow retreat if I were you.”
West Haven took one of the chairs across from the desk. “What have their graces done now?”
Valentine preferred to prop his boots—moderately dusty—on the opposite corner from his brothers. This put the sunlight over Val’s left shoulder.
None of the brothers had any gray hairs yet, something of a competition in Westhaven’s mind, though he wasn’t sure whether first past the post would be the winner or the loser. They were only in their thirties, but they were all fathers of small children—small Windham children.
“His grace is sending Uncle Tony and Aunt Gladys on maneuvers in Wales directly after the ball,” Valentine said, “while her grace will snatch up our cousins, doubtless in anticipation of some matchmaking.”
They had four female cousins: Beth, Charlotte, Megan, and Anwen. They were lovely young women, red-haired, intelligent, and well dowered, but they were Windhams, and thus in no hurry to marry.
A situation the duchess sought to remedy.
“So that’s why Megan was particularly effusive in her suggestions that I come south,” St. Just mused, opening a japanned box on the mantel. “Emmie said something untoward was afoot.”
A piece of marzipan disappeared down St. Just’s maw.
“Goes well with brandy,” he said, offering the box to Val, who took two. “Westhaven?”
“How generous of you, St. Just.” He took three, though the desk held another box, which his brothers might not find. His children hadn’t.
“Beth and Megan have both been through enough seasons to know how to repel boarders,” Westhaven said.
“I wondered what their graces would do when they got us all married off,” Valentine mused, brandy glass held just so before his elegant mouth. “I thought they’d turn to charitable works, a rest between rounds until the grandchildren grew older.”
He tossed a bit of marizipan in the air and caught it in his mouth, just he would have twenty years earlier, and the sight pleased Westhaven in a way that he might admit when all of his hair was gray.
“Beth is weakening,” Westhaven said. “She’s become prone to megrims, sore knees, a touch of a sniffle. Anna and I do what we can, but the children keep us busy, as does the business of the dukedom.”
“And we all thank God you’ve taken that mare’s nest in hand,” St. Just said, lifting his glass. “How do matters stand, if you don’t mind a soldier’s blunt speech?”
“We’re firmly on our financial feet,” Westhaven said. “Oddly enough, Moreland is in part responsible. Because he didn’t bother with wartime speculation, when the Corsican was finally buttoned up, once for all, our finances went through none of the difficult adjustments many others are still reeling from.”
“If you ever do reel,” Valentine said, “you will apply to me for assistance, or I’ll thrash you silly, Westhaven.”
"And to me,” St. Just said. “Or I’ll finish the job Valentine starts.”
“My thanks for your violent threats,” Westhaven said, hiding a smile behind his brandy glass. “Do I take it you fellows would rather establish yourselves under my roof than at the ducal mansion?”
Valentine and St. Just exchanged a look that put Westhaven in mind of their parents.
“If we’re to coordinate the defense of our unmarried lady cousins,” St. Just said, “then it makes sense we’d impose on your hospitality, Westhaven.”
“We’re agreed then,” Valentine said, raiding the tin once more. “Ellen will be relieved. Noise and excitement aren’t good for a woman in her condition, and this place will be only half as uproarious as Moreland House.”
“We must think of our cousins,” St. Just replied. “The combined might of the duke and duchess of Moreland are arrayed against the freedom of four dear and determined young ladies who will not surrender their spinsterhood lightly.”
“Nor should they,” Westhaven murmured, replacing the lid on the tin, only for St. Just to pry it off. “We had the right to choose as we saw fit, as did our sisters. You’d think their graces would have learned their lessons by now.”
A knock sounded on the door. Valentine sat up straight, St. Just hopped to his feet to replace the tin on the mantel, and was standing, hands behind his back, when Westhaven bid the next caller to enter.
“His Grace, the Duke of Moreland, my lords,” the butler announced.
In the next instant, Percival Windham stepped nimbly around the butler and marched into the study.
“Well done, well done. My boys have called a meeting of the Windham subcommittee on the disgraceful surplus of spinsters soon to be gathered into her grace’s care. St. Just, you’re looking well. Valentine, when did you take to wearing jam on your linen?”
Moreland swiped the tin off the mantel, opened it, took the chair next to Westhaven and set the box in the middle of the desk.
“I’m listening, gentlemen,” the duke said, popping a sweet into his mouth. “Unless you want to see your old papa lose what few wits he has remaining after raising you lot, you will please tell me how to get your cousins married off post haste. The duchess has spoken, and we are her slaves in all things, are we not?”