No Ordinary Duke
by Sophie Barnes
Publication Date: October 30, 2018
Genres: Adult, Historical, Romance
He’s everything she’s trying to avoid…But somehow precisely what she needs…
Caleb Crawford doesn’t want to be a duke. He’d much rather build houses for a living. So when fate disrupts his peaceful life and burdens him with the responsibilities of a newly inherited title, he does what any sensible man would do by fleeing London, disguising himself as a laborer, and seeking refuge with three young spinsters who need his help with a leaky roof.
Ruined by a marquess who promised her the world, Mary Clemens has sworn to avoid marriage forever. Instead, she intends to live out her days with her friends and the orphaned children they’ve taken into their care. But when Mr. Crawford comes knocking, Mary finds herself in real danger of risking heartbreak all over again. Especially when she discovers that he’s not at all what he seems.
Smiling fondly at the five children who played nearby, Mary hung another pillowcase on the clothesline. It was a sunny autumn day with a brisk breeze, so the laundry would dry quickly.
Reaching inside the basket beside her, she pulled out a sheet, struggling a little when it billowed and flapped against her hold. Her life was so different now from what it had once been, before she’d fallen in love and allowed herself to dream. But dreams, as she’d learned, were fickle things easily torn apart.
Inhaling deeply she forced the sheet to comply by pinning it with a couple of pegs. She then grabbed the now-empty basket and marched toward the house.
“Come help me prepare the tea,” she called to Bridget, Daphne, Penelope, Peter, and Eliot whose scruffiness proved a fondness for the outdoors. Their laughter danced through the air as the kitten they played with toyed with a piece of string. His name was Raphael, and he’d been gifted to them by Mr. Townsend, a gentleman farmer whose interest in Mary had recently increased.
Daphne swept the kitten up into her arms and raced past Mary with the rest of the troop close on her heels.
“Remember to wipe your shoes,” Mary called.
The reminder caused quite the ruckus in the narrow doorway, and Mary could hear her friend Cassandra on the opposite side, issuing threats to anyone who dared bring dirt inside the newly swept kitchen.
“Do you ever have any regrets?” Mary asked when she reached Cassandra. She cleaned her own boots with a brush and entered the boisterous interior where cups and saucers clattered together as the girls helped each other prepare two trays. Eliot, the youngest of the boys, reached for the tin filled with biscuits, and Mary charged toward him. “Clean your hands before opening that, or you’ll not have a single one.”
“Never,” Cassandra grinned, answering Mary’s question. “This is where happiness lives. I would not trade it for anything else in the world.”
Agreeing, Mary filled the kettle with water from a jug and hung it over the fire. Despite the various challenges they’d faced over the years, they’d acquired their freedom in this tiny corner of the world. They could walk about as they pleased and keep the company they chose without causing a stir. Now that she and her friends had been labeled spinsters, nobody seemed to care what they did, which was, to be honest, rather liberating.
Reaching for the tin filled with tea, Mary spooned a little into a strainer and glanced across at where Peter was sitting. The twelve-year-old boy had moved in with them six weeks earlier after his parents had died. He’d kept to himself ever since, his eyes always downcast, his mood always somber.
No matter how hard they all tried, they’d failed to reach him so far, and while Mary knew he would need time to heal, she wished there was some way to help him.
“I’ve finished cleaning the grates and polishing the brass tools,” Emily told Mary and Cassandra as she came to join them. A wallflower whose fondness for sweets had been evident in her figure, Emily had never secured a dance and had eventually given up trying after enduring her third failed season.
It was a pity really, for the active lifestyle she now enjoyed had helped her shed enough weight to reveal a woman many would likely call pretty.
“Well done,” Cassandra said. “The weather is unusually pleasant for this time of year. It will likely turn sooner than we expect, and when it does, we’ll need to be ready.”
“Which means we’ll need firewood too,” Emily said. She glanced at Mary. “Do you suppose Mr. Townsend might be willing to offer his assistance with that?”
Mary glanced at Cassandra and then back at Emily. “I’m sure he’d be happy to oblige.” Especially if she invited him back to the house for tea after church on Sunday. She hesitated on that thought and bit her lip. “I just don’t want to take advantage.”
“And you wouldn’t be, as long as he’s happy to oblige,” Cassandra told her.
Mary gave her a quelling look. “You know what I mean.” Mr. Townsend was a nice man, but it had also become alarmingly clear that he was in the market for a wife and that he favored Mary for this position. The only problem was she had no intention of ever marrying anyone. Because if her time as a debutant had taught her anything, it was that even the most honorable gentleman was not to be trusted.
“Perhaps we should set our minds to matching him with a lady who’d be more appreciative of his advances,” Emily suggested.
“Good heavens,” Mary protested. “No man would wish for three spinsters to involve themselves in his search for a bride. Not even a man as charismatic as Mr. Townsend.”
A knock at the front door interrupted their conversation. Cassandra frowned. “Who could possibly be calling at this hour?” She made her way toward the front of the house while Mary and Emily trailed behind.
“Perhaps it is Mr. Townsend who’s come to call on Mary,” Emily suggested. “How convenient would that be, considering we were just discussing the need for his help?”
Not bothering with a response, Mary rolled her eyes and followed Cassandra and Emily out into the front hallway. Another knock sounded and Cassandra opened the door to reveal a tall, broad shouldered man with dark, windswept hair and a shrewd gaze.
“Lady Cassandra?” he inquired. His eyes searched each of their faces, and Mary instinctively retreated a step. “Viscount Aldridge’s sister?”
Cassandra raised her chin. “I am she. And you are…?”
Again his gaze drifted from one to the other, this time with a hint of expectation, as if he waited for them to guess his name. When none of them added anything further, he said, “Mr. Crawford, at your service. Your brother sent me to inspect your home and to make any necessary repairs.”
Mary drew a sharp breath, because just as he said that, their eyes locked. Not for too long, but for long enough to unsettle her. Unwittingly, she assessed his age, which had to be close to her own though perhaps slightly older, the perfect shape of his mouth with its broad lower lip, his angular jaw line and aquiline nose. All combined to create the most handsome face she’d ever seen. It also provided a sharp reminder of a similar pair of eyes a few shades lighter. Those eyes had gazed upon her as if she’d been special—as if she’d mattered. Except she hadn’t. At least not enough.
“I’ll fetch the tea,” she said and turned away, deliberately breaking eye contact. “Just in case you decide to invite Mr. Crawford inside.”
Returning to the kitchen, Mary took comfort in the peace that had settled over the children because of the biscuits they’d all procured from the tin. They halted in the process of chewing the moment they saw her, their anxious eyes waiting to see if she’d scold them for starting on their snacks before they’d been invited to do so.
“We have a guest,” she told them, ignoring the issue as she went to fetch the kettle. The water was already boiling, so she grabbed a dishrag, pulled the kettle off the hook above the flames, and poured the water through the strainer into the teapot. Steam rose in thick swirls, filling the air with hot humidity. Glancing over her shoulder, she narrowed her gaze just enough to remind the children of who was in charge. “I hope there are still a few biscuits left for him.”
“There’s three,” Cassandra’s daughter, Penelope, said before wiping her hands on her skirt. “One for you, Emily, and Mama.” The little blonde girl stared back at Mary with big round eyes. “We didn’t think to save one for a guest.”
Mary bowed her head to hide her smile and nodded. “Very well then. No biscuits it is.” She picked up the tray and started for the door. “But this will cost you when the tickle monster hears what you’ve done.” And then she swept out into the hallway with a grin while squeals erupted behind her.
She could still feel her lips twitching with mirth when she walked into the parlor. Cassandra and Emily were both seated on the only sofa the room had to offer while Mr. Crawford filled out one of the armchairs. His bright blue gaze latched on to Mary with intense interest, and in spite of her conviction that she’d never respond to any man ever again, her stomach tightened and her hands began to tremble.
A slight dimple puckered the edge of Mr. Crawford’s mouth, affording him a humorous expression. Mary’s pulse quickened and she hastened forward to set the tray down, eager to be rid of it before she dropped it.
“—so with that in mind,” he continued, returning his attention to Cassandra and Emily, “it could take anywhere from a week to a month before the roof is completely intact.”
Mary placed the tray on the low table between the sofa and the armchair and tried to ignore the rich cadence of it. Swallowing, she sat in the remaining chair before pouring tea for each of them.
“Milk and” –she cleared her throat which had suddenly gone quite squeaky—”sugar?”
Mr. Crawford turned his gaze toward her, and all of her strength seeped out of her limbs as they instantly turned to jelly. Determined not to let it show, she stared back at him and did her best not to blink. But his eyes were like azure blue lakes on a hot summer’s day, and for some inexplicable reason, she found herself leaning toward him.
A grin tugged at his lips. “Neither.”
Mary took a sharp breath and leaned back. Averting her gaze, she set Mr. Crawford’s cup before him and then offered tea to her friends, who both watched her with curious expressions. No. She would not let this handsome stranger addle her brain. This was a path she’d been down before, and it had broken her heart and denied her the chance of marriage.
On that sobering thought, she returned the teapot to the tray and took a sip from her own cup. Mr. Crawford was a laborer, a man sent by Cassandra’s brother to patch up the roof. She didn’t care how handsome he was or how well he looked in those beige colored breeches that hugged his thighs. Sighing, she slumped back in her seat and almost spilled her tea in the process. Of course she’d noticed. She’d have had to be dead not to.
“We cannot offer much in the way of accommodation,” Cassandra said. “To stay with us in the house would be inappropriate, and even if it weren’t, I’m afraid all the rooms are occupied.”
“I understand.” The deep timbre of his voice stroked its way along Mary’s nerves as he spoke. She shuddered slightly and reminded herself once again to take control of her senses. “But your brother mentioned a caretaker’s cottage. Is that still available?”
“It is,” Cassandra said. “In fact, it was vacated by the caretaker only a week ago, so it should still be somewhat clean and ready to move into, though I must warn you that it is pretty sparse.”
“That’s quite all right.” He smiled warmly at Cassandra, and Mary felt the oddest pang in her chest. “My needs are few. As long as there’s a roof and a bed, I’ll be content.” He picked up his cup and cradled it carefully between his large hands. Sipping the tea he then asked, “Why did the caretaker leave?”
It was so to the point Mary felt like she’d just been pushed into the path of a charging carriage. “Because he accused us of squandering our money on others instead of seeing to Viscount Aldridge’s wishes.”
The room fell silent in the wake of her sharp response. Mary took another sip of tea, not daring to look at any of them while heat warmed her cheeks.
“Not a very sympathetic man then, I take it,” Mr. Crawford murmured.
Heart pounding, Mary raised her gaze to his and stiffened her spine in an effort to maintain at least some of her composure. “He did not understand why we would feel any responsibility toward children who aren’t our own.”
“He was a very plain-spoken man,” Emily added while Mr. Crawford’s gaze remained fixed on Mary. It took a moment for him to turn slowly away in order to face her friend, leaving Mary’s insides in a jumble and her head slightly dizzy. “Too plain-spoken, in the end.” Emily grinned and jutted her chin in Mary’s direction. “Miss Clemens put him in his place. I’ve never seen a man pack up and leave so quickly.”
“I’m sure you haven’t,” Mr. Crawford said. His voice was soft and his eyes trained on Emily, and yet Mary felt her insides quiver as if he spoke only to her.
Reaching up, she pinched the bridge of her nose and muttered a gentle reminder to herself about not letting any man tempt her.
“You probably want to take a look at the damage and at the cottage where you will be staying,” Cassandra said. “Mary can do the honors while Emily and I start on supper. You are welcome to join us for our evening meal if you like, unless of course you prefer the tavern in the village.”
“Thank you, but I do believe a hearty home-cooked meal would be just the thing this evening,” Mr. Crawford said. He stood and lowered his gaze to Mary. “Shall we proceed with the tour, Miss Clemens?”
About Sophie Barnes
Born in Denmark, Sophie has spent her youth traveling with her parents to wonderful places all around the world.
She has studied design in Paris and New York and has a bachelor’s degree from Parson’s School of design, but most impressive of all – she’s been married to the same man three times, in three different countries and in three different dresses.
While living in Africa, Sophie turned to her lifelong passion – writing.
When she’s not busy, dreaming up her next romance novel, Sophie enjoys spending time with her family. She currently lives on the East Coast.