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A Lady for a Duke
By Alexis Hall
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Only when their families reconnect, years after the war, does Viola learn how deep that loss truly was. Shattered without her, Gracewood has retreated so far into grief that Viola barely recognises her old friend in the lonely, brooding man he has become.
As Viola strives to bring Gracewood back to himself, fresh desires give new names to old feelings. Feelings that would have been impossible once and may be impossible still, but which Viola cannot deny. Even if they cost her everything, all over again.
Some characters who knew Viola before her transition refer to her deadname or use male pronouns when speaking about her in retrospect, but in keeping with the conventions of the period this is only in the form of surname and title.
Gracewood has a disability to which he and others will occasionally refer using ableist language. There are some references to his suicidal ideation, as well as references to drug and alcohol abuse.
Some language has been modernised for tone, voice and readability.
I’m afraid that settles it.” Having come to the end of the letter she had been reading, Lady Marleigh brandished it in a rather warlike fashion. “We shall have to intervene.”
Her paid companion, Miss Viola Carroll, answered with a squawk. This had not been intentional. It was simply that she had driven her embroidery needle into the pad of her thumb.
“You do know,” remarked Lady Marleigh dryly, “that contrary to popular belief needlepoint is not mandatory for our sex.”
Viola shot her an amused look from beneath brows whose tilt, she knew, inclined to the devilish. “Well, forgive me for attempting to acquire some accomplishments.”
“My dear, an accomplishment is inventing the hydraulic press or investigating the properties of nitrous oxide. It is not making a picture of a willow tree on cloth.”
“Don’t you think that’s rather a matter of perspective?” Viola gazed upon her only mildly blood-spattered willow. “If putting pictures on cloth was the province of men, you may be quite sure it would be hailed as the miracle of the age.”
That drew an appreciative chuckle from Lady Marleigh. “A fine point. And it is well taken.”
“Unlike this fine point”—Viola put her needle aside—“which was very ill-taken indeed.”
“To say nothing of ill-timed.”
“I’m so sorry, Louise. I interrupted you with my self-impalement. What settles what? And in what must we intervene?”
Lady Marleigh, never one to have her thunder stolen without a fight, re-brandished the letter. “It’s Miranda. I’m genuinely beginning to worry about her.”
A long, helpless silence filled the blue drawing room, which was Lady Marleigh’s preferred venue for drinking tea and brandishing correspondence. Viola’s mother had usually spent her mornings in the garden room, but Louise felt strongly that the outdoors belonged outdoors and, truthfully, the difference was valuable. It reminded Viola that this was no longer her house. That her childhood belonged to someone she could no longer be. There was the past and the present and the bright, sharp line she had drawn between them.
“What’s wrong?” she asked finally.
“She’s turning into a gothic heroine. It really won’t do.”
Folding her hands in her lap, Viola attempted to still their trembling. “I… that is… I’m sure she’s—”
“She’s not. She’s assuredly not.” The paper crackled as it was, once again, waved in Viola’s direction. “Listen to this: My dearest Louise, and so on and so forth, hope this letter and so on and so forth, fondest affection for your family, and so on and so forth, we keep very quietly here, my brother preferring the company of silence and dark rooms to any that the human heart could afford him and having driven away, through infelicitous words, all but the most devoted servants and every neighbour within a radius of some two hundred miles.”
“That does not seem like him,” Viola murmured, in spite of herself. “His father, yes. But not him.”
Lady Marleigh cast her an unreadable look before continuing, “He still takes laudanum for the pain, and other spirits too, though I do not know what solace they are supposed to bring him. As for me, I find I am not discontented. After all, the country hereabouts, with its harsh skies and dark cliffs, is most picturesque.”
“You see?” exclaimed Lady Marleigh. “No girl of… sixteen, is she now?”
“I believe seventeen.”
“My point is, no young girl possessed of beauty, brains, and a dowry larger than the Prince Regent’s backside should be reduced to taking an interest in the landscape.”
“It’s… it’s a lovely part of the world.”
“Viola”—Lady Marleigh’s far-too-shrewd eyes pinned her in place—“I understand this can only be discomforting for you. But the de Veres are our friends and they need us.”
“Were my friends. And they may need Lady Marleigh—they may even need someone I never was—but they do not need Viola Carroll.”
A soft rustle as Lady Marleigh turned the letter to read the cross-hatching. “I shall probably take up my watercolours again. I had a tutor, of course, as I had a tutor for nearly everything, but I never excelled. And now I may be grateful I have opportunity to practise. I do not think it will be as terrible as they say, to become an old maid. I am fortunate enough to have a portion of my own and I believe I will always have a home here. It is such a large house and I half fancy as the years pass my brother may entirely forget I share it with him.”
Viola put her head in her hands. “Very well. So Miranda is miserable. Why must you confront me with it?”
“Not to hurt you.”
“I know that.” Viola glanced up again, mustering the semblance of a smile. “You may be somewhat ruthless. But you have never been cruel.”
To Viola’s surprise, her sister-in-law actually blushed a little. “I’m grateful you recognise the distinction. I’m well aware that I’m not the easiest woman to like.”
“I’d be lost without you. Asking for your hand in marriage is the only sensible decision my brother has ever made.” It was an opinion in which Viola knew herself to be the minority. For all he was a second son, Badger’s fortune was considerable, and his person accounted, by those better placed than Viola to judge, remarkable. Lady Marleigh, by contrast, was a small, unremarkable woman of peculiar habits and minimal wealth.
“Immodest though it may be to say it”—Lady Marleigh’s lips twitched—“I agree.”
Viola lifted a hand to her mouth to stifle a giggle that could only reflect poorly on her brother.
“I’m terribly fond of Badger,” Lady Marleigh continued. “He’s so biddable. And quite magnificent without his clothes on.”
Retrieving her needlework, Viola tried to use her half-finished willow tree to distract herself from unwelcome images. “We are related. The former I knew. The latter I had no need to.”
“Though it does rather make one worry for Little Bartholomew. We can only hope he’s inherited my brains and his father’s looks.”
“And,” asked Viola mischievously, “if it’s the other way round?”
Lady Marleigh frowned. “Lord help us, I have no idea. I suppose we feed him to the nearest wolf and try again.”
“If that’s your solution for Bartholomew, I dread to think what you’re proposing for Miranda.”
“I propose we get her out of that dreadful old castle and into society.”
“And then what?”
“Why”—Lady Marleigh gave Viola an isn’t it obvious look—“a sensible marriage, of course.”
“Could that not be simply exchanging one dreadful old castle for another?”
“It’s a castle one chooses. And we women must cleave to our choices, Viola.”
“Few know that so well as I.” Viola’s mouth curled irresistibly into a smile. “And cleave I shall, though, of course, I will never marry.”
Lady Marleigh did not smile back. “Never have friends. Never marry. Is that really the life you want, Viola?”
“It is the life I must have. And still more to my liking than the one I was intended to live.”
“You see the world too starkly, my dear.”
“The world sees all things starkly,” returned Viola, a little sharply. “That is rather the problem.”
Fortunately, or unfortunately, Lady Marleigh was impervious to sharpness. “But you’ve already sacrificed so much. Title, lands, wealth, most of your rights, and the ability to be lauded for accomplishments other than needlepoint.”
“I like needlepoint.”
“Even so, with so much given up already, why give up things you could easily have?”
“Because I can’t have them.”
“What do you mean, why not?” It was rare that Viola found herself lost for words. But her sister-in-law was renowned for achieving the unlikely. “Marriage is clearly out of the question. Even if I were to find a man who will see me as I am, the law and the church most certainly will not.”
Lady Marleigh shrugged. “The church is a dumping ground for superfluous lordlings, what the law doesn’t know won’t hurt it, and men are more understanding than you think. After all, what is love but understanding?”
“And”—Viola lifted her brows into sardonic little arches—“Badger understands you, does he?”
“Well,” admitted Lady Marleigh, with a smile, “not what I say much of the time. But he understands that I am the worst kind of arrogant, unsentimental, managing female, and he adores me.”
“I’m not convinced our situations are comparable.”
“Then you may well be a greater fool than your brother.”
For a moment Viola was unsure whether to be offended—after all, Badger had once eaten an entire vase of silk peonies, and when questioned explained that he’d thought they were real—but then she laughed. “You do me too much credit.”
“When it comes to measuring the folly of others, I am known for my magnanimity.” If Viola had believed she had distracted Lady Marleigh from her purpose she should have remembered that Lady Marleigh on a mission was not easily diverted. She gave the letter its third brandishing of the day. “But this, Viola, this is a cri de coeur ineptly camouflaged as reassurance.”
It was not something Viola could deny. “You should go to her.”
“We should go to her.”
“I was Gracewood’s intimate, not hers. She will barely remember me.”
There was the ominous pause of Lady Marleigh preparing to play her trump card. “It’s not for her sake I’m asking you.”
“Frankly, Louise, there’s been a dearth of asking in this conversation.”
“Well, I am your employer, so I’m not technically obliged to. But I’d far rather it was your choice.”
Lady Marleigh had many qualities that seemed excellent when directed at others and quite the reverse when directed at Viola. “I’m not… I’m not ready,” she said, wishing she sounded less pleading.
“It has been a year. I know this used to be… still is… your home. But you must leave it at some point.”
Another of those ambiguous qualities as possessed by Lady Marleigh was a tendency to be right. Although in this case her being right did not make the prospect of moving beyond the small world Viola had built for herself any less terrifying. “True.”
“And it will be easier,” Lady Marleigh pressed on, “to go to Morgencald than London.”
“And if I am recognised?”
“Then it will be by friends, in Gracewood’s case, your closest friend, and far from idle tongues. Besides, it is unlikely that you will be. No-one will be looking for a dead soldier in a lady’s companion.” Lady Marleigh leaned forward conspiratorially. “The truth is, outside of sentimental novels, nobody looks at a lady’s companion at all.”
Viola could feel the beginnings of a headache gathering in her temples. This was too sudden and far, far too much. She had as good as forbidden herself to think of Gracewood for the past two years—for he belonged with the past she had surrendered to the only future she could bear. And what was it Miranda had said of him? That he had grown solitary? Careless? Perhaps even cruel?
That was not the man she knew. But then, he had not known her either.
“I think,” she said, “I need some air.”
And, gathering her skirts, she fled the room.
The Marleighs—who a less-documented part of their family history suggested may once upon a time have been wool merchants—had first risen to prominence during the sixteenth century, but it was not until the early eighteenth century that Viola’s recently ennobled great-grandfather had acquired a piece of land in Devon and upon it the Stuart manor that would become Marleigh Court. It had taken some eighty years and two generations of Marleighs to transform that once modest family home into an enduring testament to Georgian taste: Palladian architecture, rococo interiors, and rolling acres of lushly landscaped parkland.
And this, too, Viola had abandoned. Rejected. Thrown away. Insofar as one could say that of a place one still inhabited. If someone had asked her yesterday, she would have said without hesitation that she did not regret it. Except today Lady Marleigh—however well-intentioned she might have been—had stirred up the past like it was Christmas punch, and now nothing seemed certain anymore.
Perhaps, Viola thought, as she made her way through the gardens and out into the park beyond, the paths as familiar to her as her own skin and bone, it was not the loss of her estate she mourned. Not exactly. It was what it represented. Legacy. Home. Family. Things she was, at last, liberated to want, but completely unable to have. There were times she could almost have laughed at how absurd it was. This endless dance of what was given and what was taken away, what felt like freedom, and what its cost had been. A children’s game of barter: this piece of string for a marble, a sea-smoothed pebble for a peacock feather, your self for your future, your choices for the loss of them. After all, it was better to laugh than to weep.
Lost in her thoughts, she wandered further from the house than she intended. And it was not a good day for walking, being chill and blustery, without even the promise of brightness. The little woods that slanted down to the Plym were bare and bleak, just the squelch of decomposing leaves beneath her half-boots, and trees twisted in naked entreaty to an unremitting sky. But inclement weather did not deter Viola from her wanderings and nor, it seemed, did they deter Little Bartholomew, who was marching resolutely along the riverbank with the singular determination of aggrieved childhood.
Viola’s immediate instinct was to run and catch him up in case he fell in and drowned, but that would have been contrary to Lady Marleigh’s wishes. “A child who can’t even make it past the age of seven without drowning itself in some brook or other,” she would have said, “is likely to make a very annoying adult.” And, to give Little Bartholomew due credit, he had managed to discharge his not-drowning duties thus far with admirable competence.
So instead of interfering with the course of nature, she made her way down to the riverside to see what the matter might be. Despite Louise’s hopes, her son was showing little sign of inheriting his father’s cheekbones, stature, or remarkable blue-purple eyes. In fact, he was taking strongly after his mother, being mousey in a number of areas. But also, from Viola’s experience, in the realm of not being an unbelievable fluffhead.
“Hello, Bartholomew,” she said. “Where are you going?”
Little Bartholomew continued to march. “I am running away.”
He didn’t seem to be running, more going for a strengthening stroll, but stubbornness was another trait that Little Bartholomew had inherited from his mother, and if he had resolved to run away, away he was liable to run. At least until something distracted him. “Why are you running away?”
“Because Mama is leaving and will not take me with her, and I think that very cruel.”
“She is not leaving for very long,” replied Viola, attempting what reassurance she could in pursuit of familial harmony.
“Where is she going?” asked Little Bartholomew.
That was complex. Too complex to explain to a child. Or perhaps that was an excuse. After all, she’d been similarly hesitant to explain who she was to Little Bartholomew, but Lady Marleigh had insisted. “Children are stronger than you think,” she’d argued. “Besides, they haven’t had years and years of silly people filling their heads with silly ideas about what you’re meant to do or say or be.” And she’d been right. He’d accepted Viola the same way he accepted that the sun rose or that audivi and auditum followed audio and audire.
Which was to say he’d asked why about sixteen times but ultimately been satisfied with “because that’s the way it is.”
“Your mother,” she tried, “has had a letter from an old friend. You probably don’t remember the Duke of Gracewood, do you?”
“No. But Mr. Dowling says the de Veres are an illustrious connection for the family to possess.”
Mr. Dowling was Little Bartholomew’s tutor, and one of the dreariest men Viola had ever encountered. “He would. In any case your mother received a letter from the Duke’s sister, Lady Miranda. And it seems…” Again Viola hesitated, wondering how best to explain so delicate a situation to Little Bartholomew without telling too many lies or too much truth. “I think,” she went on carefully, “the Duke is very sad. And because he is sad, he is making his sister sad.”
“Why is he doing that?” wondered Little Bartholomew aloud. “Is he a very wicked person?”
The question stung. No, not stung. Cut. For a moment Viola couldn’t bear to answer. “No,” she said at last. “No, he—I can think of no man less wicked. But I think perhaps I hurt him. A long time ago.”
“Oh.” For a moment Little Bartholomew seemed satisfied. Then he was immediately unsatisfied. “Are you a very wicked person?”
At this, she gave a half smile, for sometimes she thought she might be. “Dreadfully.”
“That must be hard.” Little Bartholomew looked grave. “Mr. Dowling tells me that terrible things happen to wicked people.”
A chill came over Viola. A slow, sick chill that started below her stomach and ran up her back and over her shoulders. “I’m afraid that Mr. Dowling is wrong. Wicked people often prosper, and the good often suffer.”
“Then should I be wicked?” asked Little Bartholomew. From the look in his eye, the idea held a certain appeal.
“It would make other people very sad,” she warned him.
Little Bartholomew was briefly silent. Then he folded his arms. “Well, other people are making me sad. That is why I’m running away.”
Looking down, Viola did her best to strike an auntly tone. “One should not repay sadness with sadness.”
Unfortunately, Little Bartholomew remained unconvinced. “Why? Would that not be equitable? Mr. Dowling says we should strive to be equitable.”
Viola didn’t quite have an answer for that. “Perhaps,” she conceded. “But I suppose I believe that the world is always better with less sadness in it.”
“And will Mama be very sad if I run away?” asked Little Bartholomew.
Little Bartholomew stopped marching. “I should not like Mama to be sad. I should go to her and explain that I am safe and well, and tell her I am sorry for leaving.”
If only, Viola reflected, it were that simple. But then it was, for a child. For a grown woman, with a lifetime of choices and regrets behind her, it was so much harder. “I think that’s a good idea. Shall we return?”
Little Bartholomew nodded, and, still adrift in one too many pasts, Viola stooped in order to lift him into her arms. This, she quickly regretted. “You’ve grown,” she told him as she set him back down. “A lot.”
“I’m seven and a third,” he replied. “Which is also seven and two-sixths, or seven and four-twelfths, which is the same as seven years and four months.”
At least Mr. Dowling had taught him something. “Come on.” She took his hand instead. “Let us not worry your parents more than we have to.”
“When Mama goes to Northumberland”—Little Bartholomew pronounced the word very carefully, as if it were some distant country—“will you stay with me?”
It was wrong to be flattered by the affections of a seven-and-a-third-year-old. Viola was not, after all, his mother. Just his favourite aunt, although the competition for that title was somewhat limited, for she was also his only aunt. “I,” she began, hardly knowing what words were going to come out of her mouth, “I don’t think I can.”
“Why not?” was Little Bartholomew’s inevitable response.
And now they were back to complicated. “Because the Duke is my friend, and you help your friends if you can. Even if it is painful.”
Little Bartholomew considered this. “See. I knew you were not wicked.”
And now Viola considered that. “I hope I am not.”
They made their way back to the house in thoughtful silence, Viola hand-in-hand with Little Bartholomew, who was now heir to the estate that would have gone to the son she would never have. He was a good boy, she thought, for all his occasional flirtations with wickedness. She expected he would grow up kind, like his mother and father. And she would be there to see it, for birthdays and Christmases and school holidays. A part of the family, if not at the heart of it. The spinster aunt in the guest bedroom. A small, solitary portrait in some dusty corner of the gallery for future generations to wonder about.
It was something. More than she could have hoped for. She had long told herself she could be content with that, imagining in turn a whole life for Gracewood—one where he grieved her and forgot her, and married and moved on. Became a better father than his own father had ever been to him. It would have been impossible, otherwise, to let him go.
But now there was the letter. And the letter was real. And it turned her imagined world into a thing of wisps and fragments. She did not know—could not know—what had become of Gracewood in their years apart. Only one thing was certain, the truth she had offered Little Bartholomew: that Gracewood was her friend, and she his, and that too was real.
Even before Waterloo, when everything else had been illusion.
The problem with long coach journeys—even putting aside the tedium and the discomfort—was that they gave one time to think. And the problem with thinking was that it furnished one with a comprehensive list of all the ways in which one’s most recent decision was terrible.
“I think”—Viola lifted her head from where it lolled heavily against the squabs—“this was a terrible decision.”
Lady Marleigh opened her eyes. “On the contrary, you’ve chosen to do as I suggested, which is always the best decision possible.”
“Please don’t make me do this.”
“I’m not making you do anything.”
“And how was I supposed to react when you told me that my oldest and dearest friend had sequestered himself in the country, lost to grief and laudanum.”
“I think you’ll find”—Lady Marleigh gave her a sharp look—“that what I said was Miranda seems to have gone strange, she probably needs a season. It was your mind that jumped straight to Gracewood.”
“Perhaps,” offered Viola, “he too needs a season.”
It was a woeful attempt to be amusing, and Lady Marleigh denied it even the most cursory of smiles. “I understand this is difficult, but it’s the right thing to do.”
“How can it be? Miranda I barely know, and Gracewood I know too well.”
- “Hall has hit it out of the park with this emotionally resonant, character-driven Regency romance . . . [a] nuanced, swoony and a stellar example of what romance can do.”—BookPage, Starred Review
"Hall is a consistently beautiful writer, but this story, the first in a new series, may be his best yet.”
—Kirkus, Starred Review
- “Hall has a gift for humor but is also skilled at composing passages that evoke the deepest emotions, whether the ache of long-denied love, crushing grief or the relief and soulful joy of being accepted and adored as one's most authentic self.”—Library Journal, Starred Review
- "The period banter is unparalleled as Hall pulls his characters out of the drawing room and into far closer quarters. He explores difficult subjects with a sharpness matched only by the tenderness underpinning the relationship between Viola and Gracewood. Fans of Lisa Kleypas and anyone looking for romance centering trans characters owe it to themselves to check this out."—Publishers Weekly, Starred Review
- “Hall has a gift for humor but is also skilled at composing passages that evoke the deepest emotions, whether the ache of long-denied love, crushing grief or the relief and soulful joy of being accepted and adored as one's most authentic self.”—Shelf Awareness, Starred Review
- “His beautiful and moving first historical romance, which has just enough humor to lighten the angst, may be the sweetest book of this summer.”—NPR
- “Alexis Hall was made for writing these period narratives. . . . Featuring Hall’s trademark wit, a second chance romance infused with grief, yearning and acceptance, A Lady for a Duke is a vivid, moving tale.”—The Nerd Daily
- “A name to follow in romance. . . . With A Lady for a Duke, Hall cements himself even further as a writer who pushes the genre beyond its previous borders and helps to reestablish a new definition altogether.”—Paste Magazine
- “If you're looking to swoon, laugh, and cry, then this is the audiobook for you.”—Buzzfeed
- "Hall is a dizzyingly talented writer, one likely to spur envy in anyone who's ever picked up a pen."—Entertainment Weekly
- "Simply the best writer I've come across in years."—Laura Kinsale, New York Times bestselling author of Flowers from the Storm
- On Sale
- May 24, 2022
- Page Count
- 480 pages