The Duke Meets His Match - Karen Tuft

Chapter 1

July 1813

It was utterly laughable what one did for one’s country and monarch at times, George Kendall, the Duke of Aylesham, thought as his traveling coach entered the village of Ashworthy in Oxfordshire. It was still morning, as George had begun his journey well before dawn—arising from his bed even before the cock had crowed and the farmers had risen from theirs.

For, in order to complete the assignment he’d accepted from Lord Castlereagh, the foreign secretary, he must face the woman to whom he’d been betrothed and who had jilted him. He must also face the only woman since that unfortunate occurrence whom he’d even briefly considered courting, whose marriage was being celebrated today. And George would be attending the festivities uninvited by either the bride or the groom.

The coach proceeded down the high street of Ashworthy and pulled into the courtyard of the Red Ox Inn. A group of stablehands rushed over to see to the horses, and a man wearing an apron approached the coach while George exited.

“Welcome to the Red Ox, my lord,” the man in the apron said, bowing.

“You are addressing the Duke of Aylesham,” George’s coachman, Bentley, barked.

George fought for patience at Bentley’s sharp words. It wasn’t as if every innkeeper in His Majesty’s kingdom could recognize every coat of arms on sight.

“My deepest apologies. Welcome to the Red Ox, Your Grace,” the man said, turning scarlet and bowing several times in succession.

George acknowledged the man with a slight nod. “I need a room for the night and accommodations for my servants,” George said. He wanted a brief nap before he had to face the demands of the afternoon, but it was not to be.

He couldn’t believe he had actually agreed to this particular assignment.

“Of course, of course!” the innkeeper said, bowing again and gesturing toward the entrance to the inn. “The wife’s got a nice breakfast set up, we can have sent to your room, and we can have a bath drawn, and—”

George held up his hand. The innkeeper stopped speaking.

“Breakfast would be appreciated. That is all,” George said. “My valet will deal directly with you if there is anything else.”

“Yes, Your Grace. Thank you, Your Grace,” the man said, bowing repeatedly again.

George nodded and then strode across the courtyard toward the inn, with the owner scurrying over to open the door for him.

Soon enough, he was settled into the best room the inn had to offer—it was devoid of any style, but at least it was clean—and a hot meal of eggs, sausage, beans, and bread arrived soon afterward. George was not particularly hungry, but he ate what was placed before him, as discipline required. He needed his strength today.

It was an utterly ludicrous situation in which to find himself, although it didn’t seem particularly humorous at the moment. Perhaps he would find the humor in it at some future date, but not now.

He called for his valet.

Evans stepped into the room from his adjoining one. “Yes, Your Grace?” he asked.

“It’s time for me to face the ghosts of my past so that England’s future may be assured,” he said with not a little sarcasm. Evans would understand; he’d been George’s father’s valet before becoming George’s and was, truth be told, the person who was the closest thing to a father figure George had ever had. Not that Evans was really that much of a father figure.

Actually, George hardly knew what having a father was like, or a mother, for that matter. He barely remembered anything about either of them—only the occasional story or two that he’d been told over the years. George’s mother had died giving birth to him, and his father had died when George was still in leading strings. As a result of the latter, George had inherited the honorary title of Earl of Kerridge, Evans as his valet, and his father’s solicitor, Mr. Oliver Dutton, Esquire, who’d been designated as George’s guardian in his father’s will and had remained a pain in George’s backside ever since.

“Your mind is wandering again, Your Grace,” Evans said.

“My mind never wanders, Evans. It goes precisely where I send it.”

“If you say so, Your Grace,” Evans replied.

“Hmm,” George muttered, removing his ruby stickpin and untying the neckcloth and tossing it aside. “I must endeavor to look better than my usual best today, Evans. You must outdo your always outstanding work.”

“Understood, Your Grace,” Evans said. “I have already seen to your boots and clothing.”

“What would I do without you, Evans?” George said as he unbuttoned