The Duke and His Duchess - By Grace Burrowes

One

“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 topic 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, “Good night, 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