The Bluestocking Duchess

The Bluestocking Duchess

February 2021

Her good friend...

Is suddenly a duke’s heir! Miss Jocelyn Sudderfeld is working at Edge Hall, indulging her love of translating ancient texts with her librarian father—and evading the need to marry! She’s always enjoyed a teasing friendship with estate manager Mr. Alex Cheverton. Until he unexpectedly becomes the duke’s heir. Now his first duty is to marry a suitable debutante, not consort with an earnest bluestocking like her… So where does that leave their friendship?

West Sussex, late February 1834

If his Oxford friends could see him now…they might not think so highly of his choice of profession.  Not that he’d really had one.

With a sigh of annoyance, Alex Cheverton, estate manager of Edge Hall, the Duke of Farisdeen’s principal country property, got down on hands and knees and crawled under his desk to retrieve his waistcoat button.  Castigating himself for putting off the task of repairing it, he backed out carefully, not wanting to compound his annoyance by banging his head on the desk.

Rising back to his feet, he stared at the offending button.  Might as well leave the correspondence on his desk and tend to it now.  Besides, he’d been craving a hot cup of tea since returning to his office after the chill of inspecting the stable block and the State Rooms the staff had just finished cleaning.

Button in hand, he walked out of his office and headed down the corridor to another of the smaller, private family rooms located, like his office, in a separate wing that backed onto and mirrored the U-shaped formal entry wing of Edge Hall. A moment later, he reached the sitting room, appreciating as he entered the warmth emanating from the fire on the hearth and the sunlight streaming through the window.

He shared this pleasant space with a handful of staff whose birth, like his, elevated them above congregating in the servant’s hall, yet was not sufficiently grand to entitle them to use the State Apartments or the sumptuous salons, bedchambers and anterooms reserved for the Duke.  Soon after taking up his post, he’d had a small stove added to the fireplace in the room so that he could prepare tea for himself whenever he wished, without having to send to the kitchen.  With wine in the decanter on the sideboard, a tin beside it containing the bread and cheese Cook sent up daily with his breakfast, he had sustenance to keep him going throughout the day.

The sideboard also contained an assortment of everyday necessities like needles, thread, scissors and thimbles.

He’d fixed the tea, taken a seat at the long table before the hearth, threaded a needle and bent over to begin his chore when a disturbance in the air of the room, followed by the wafting of rose perfume, announced a new arrival.  Jocelyn, he thought, his senses stirring.

“Ah, you’ve heated the kettle, I see,” the newcomer said.

“Yes.  There should be enough hot water left to make tea for you and your brother, if you’d like.”  Distracted by her presence, he looked up to smile at her—and jabbed himself in the thumb.

Giving an undignified yelp, he rubbed at the spot of blood on his finger, not wanting to drip it onto the waistcoat.

“What’s this?  Have you injured yourself?” she asked, walking over to the table.  “Let me see.”

“I think I’ll live,” he said, holding up the finger for her inspection.

She took a handkerchief from her sleeve and wiped off his finger.

The pain of the pinprick forgotten, he savored the touch of her hands, acutely sensitive to the brush of fabric over his finger, the subtle scent of roses that clung to her.  Guiltily aware that he shouldn’t be noticing it.

“Yes, you’ll do,” she said, releasing his hand.  “Speaking of ‘do,’ whatever were you attempting here? “ She peered down at the thread, scissors, and waistcoat laid before him on the table.

“Sewing on a button?”

“How very acute you are.”

“It’s my superior education.  It allows me to rapidly evaluate a situation and discern the most salient points,” she tossed back, her beautiful dark eyes dancing.

He could stare into them forever, Alex thought.  But of course, he wouldn’t.  Trading barbs with Jocelyn Sudderfeld, the lovely, intelligent sister of the Duke’s librarian, who over the six years he’d worked here had grown from exuberant youngster into desirable young lady almost before he noticed it, was all he would allow himself.  Especially now that he could no longer ignore how attractive her tall, graceful figure, gamin face, and fascinating eyes had become.

Fortunately, even if she didn’t view him merely as another pesky older brother, she was promised to another—or as close to promised as made no difference.

“Which begs the point,” she was saying, “of why the lofty estate manager of Edge Hall, cousin to the Duke of Farisdeen himself, is lowering himself to perform such a mundane task.  Any number of housemaids could do it for you.  Mary, in particular, would be delighted to be of assistance.”

“Which, if your understanding were as acute as you seem to think it, you would realize is exactly why I did not ask her—or any of the others.”

“Oh, my—has she turned love-sick, too?  Well, what can a gentleman like you expect, when he is handsome, charming, intelligent—and cousin to a duke?”

“He expects to tread a very careful path away from love-sick housemaids,” Alex said with asperity, drawing a laugh from Jocelyn.  “Although a little more respect from the sister of His Grace’s librarian wouldn’t come amiss.”

“Ah, but I’m not a lovesick housemaid.”

“No, you’re just an outspoken bluestocking whom I vainly hoped would have matured from the mannerless brat I encountered when I arrived six years ago”

“Perhaps, but a talented, outspoken mannerless brat,” she returned.  “In fact, despite your cruel aspersions, which would have me bursting into tears, had I any sensibility, which fortunately I do not, I am still magnanimous enough to sew on that button for you.  Can’t have you bleeding all over the parlor.  If you’ll hand me the waistcoat and thread?”

Saying that, she seated herself at the table and held out her hand.

Quite happy to turn the task over to someone whom he didn’t have to worry about trying to sneak into his bed—much as he might welcome such a shocking but highly unlikely invasion from her—he offered her the threaded needle and handed over the waistcoat.  “Are you sure you are able to sew on a button?  Writing down your brother’s Greek translations all day doesn’t exactly qualify you as a seamstress.”

“Perhaps not, but since both he and Papa seem to shed buttons as freely as dogs do their winter coats in spring, I’ve plenty of practice doing that, too.  You might cease insulting me and make me a cup of tea instead, while I mend your button.  Preparing tea, I know you are competent to handle.  Despite your lack of expertise with needle and thread, you’re not entirely the useless, idle cousin-of-the-Duke you were when you first arrived.”

“I’ll be happy to fix you’re a cup, if you will cease the cousin-of-the-Duke harassment.  Since I am, as you very well know, merely the son of a country gentleman, just as you are.  Only my father was content to occupy himself on his modest estate, rather than embrace scholarship, as your father and brother have.”

“If it earns me a hot cup of tea, I suppose I can desist.”  Abandoning her teasing for a more normal tone, she asked, “How are the repairs going on the stable block?”

“Slowly,” he replied as he extracted tea leaves from the tin, put them into a pot and poured simmering water over them.  “Although the local stone used in the original construction is a beautiful color, it doesn’t last well.  There is chipping and cracking on almost every one of the carved cornices.  Now that we’re reasonably sure there will be no further frost to exacerbate the cracks, the mason thinks he can start on it.  But he expects it will be a lengthy and extensive project.”

“No riding with the hunt for you, then,” she said, pausing to accept a steaming cup.

“No, alas.  Not that I ride with them often, anyway.”

“I know they are always pleased to welcome you when you do.  And the Duke’s hunters do require exercise.”

“They do indeed.  In fact, I’m planning to make a circuit of the tenant farms on the west side of the estate tomorrow, to inspect for any winter damage to cottages and barns and make sure the farmers have sufficient equipment and seed.  All the weather indications promise it will be a fine, sunny day.  Would you and Miss Morrison like to ride with me?”

“Emily is still tending her Papa as he recovers from a putrid cold, but I’ll send a note and ask her.  Speaking for myself, I’d be delighted to ride.  As long as I can choose which of the Duke’s hunters I get to exercise.”

“Knowing you, it will be the most skittish and ungovernable one in the stable,” Alex said.

“No, just the fastest.  After all, the hunters do need to be galloped to keep up their stamina.  So they can give the Duke and his guests a good run, if he should bring a party down to hunt.  Do you think he will?”

“Since he’s waited this late, I doubt he’ll come now.  He’s been attending a house party in the north with some political associates, and with Parliament to reconvene soon, I don’t think he’ll come all the way to Sussex before heading back to London.  All is in readiness, of course, if he should turn up.  I just looked through the State Rooms, and they are immaculate—not that I expected anything less.  Still, I told Simons to pass my compliments on to the staff.”

“They have all been working like Trojans, getting the house ready.  Farisdeen usually does come to Edge Hall to hunt before Parliament reconvenes.  I imagine some will be disappointed to miss having the excitement of a grand party visit the house.  You, I expect, will not.”

Alex laughed.  “Disappointed not to add the work of housing, feeding and entertaining the Duke and a hunting party of anywhere from ten to fifty guests for several weeks, while at the same time helping the tenants prepare for spring planting and supervising the never-ending task of repairs and upkeep on the Hall, the stables, all the other outbuildings, and the tenant cottages?  Not one bit.  Though I expect that means I shall receive instructions shortly to meet the Duke in London and give him my spring report there.”

“Papa will be disappointed.  He’d hoped to show His Grace all the progress Virgil and I—well, Virgil--has made on the translation of the Euripides tragedies.  With the Duke of Portland having commissioned a new set of Aristotle translations from his chaplain, Reverend Owen, Papa knew Farisdeen hoped to have Virgil complete his work first.”

“Winning the first-to-the-finish competition among patrons sponsoring the translation of Greek classics into English?”

“Something like that.  Just as well that His Grace won’t descend on us.  Virgil is much happier with his nose buried in Greek text than he is presenting a report to the Duke--a prospect which always sends him into a state of high anxiety.”

“Speaking with Farisdeen often has that effect on people,” Alex said drily.  “If Virgil is in such a hurry to finish, will he allow you to ride tomorrow?”

Jocelyn laughed, a delightful tinkling sound that always made Alex smile.  “You must realize that ‘finish’ is a relative term.  I doubt either Virgil—or the Duke of Portland’s chaplain—have any expectation of completing their projects for years yet.  I think my brother can spare having me here to record his pristine words for an afternoon.  Besides, I can tell him I’ll be helping Reverend Morrison by checking on his parishioners while he is laid up. ”  She angled her head up at him, her dark eyes dancing.  “Despite being mounted on the Duke’s fastest hunter, I promise not to outrace you…too often.”

“Only if you also promise not to sulk if I outrace you.”

“Easily done—since there’s little chance of that happening.”

Alex laughed, as she meant him to.  Sometimes, when she challenged him to a gallop or to a game of chess, she seemed once again the vibrant, saucy girl who’d shocked him when he first arrived by riding the feistiest horse in the Duke’s stables—clad in her brother’s breeches.  Unconventional, outspoken, endlessly curious about everything around her.

Her manners had improved—and she no longer rode about in breeches.  But sometimes he’d catch a whiff of her rose perfume…or a glimpse of her in profile, her lushly rounded figure definitely no longer that of a child.

It had certainly been easier when he could think of her only as an engaging brat.  But despite the temptation she presented, even if it were possible, he wasn’t sure he’d opt to return her to her girlish state of six years ago--and thereby forfeit the pleasure of appreciating the beauty and allure that both enticed and bedeviled him.

Fortunately for the maintenance of his control and good character, she lived with her little family in the Dower House.  No chance of running into her in her night rail as she came down to the kitchen to prepare her wakeful father a glass of warm milk.  He saw her only in the public rooms at Edge Hall, or out riding and walking the fields and farms, often with her friend Miss Morrison, the vicar’s daughter, accompanying them.

Tomorrow, he could rely on her desire to outrace him and her delight in meeting with the tenants, as well as the presence of Miss Morrison, to reinforce his control over the annoying amorous impulses she seemed to inspire in him of late.

Not that he really needed any help to avoid crossing the lines of propriety.  After the searing experience in his late teens that had seen him secretly engaged and then summarily rejected by the young lady’s father, he’d become very good at reining in both unruly emotions and amorous impulses.

Besides which, though they might both be offspring of obscure country gentlemen, lowly members of the gentry whom the ton in London might consider beneath notice, he was a gentleman, and she was a lady.  He liked and respected her too much to abuse her trust. 

No matter how much her beauty and spirit might speak to him.

“There!” she said, pulling him from his thoughts as she held up his waistcoat.  “Button firmly reattached.  With, I’ll have you note, perfect, fine, even stitches of which even your Mama would approve.”

He took the garment, a shock of awareness zinging through him as, for a moment, their fingers touched.

Maybe it would be better if she were to regress to being a saucy sixteen-year old, he thought with a sigh.

“Very fine stitchery,” he said, recovering his wits.  “My Mama, a notable needlewoman, would approve.”

“Mine was, too,” Jocelyn said, her teasing look fading and a distant expression coming over her face.  “She was so patient, teaching me, restless and irritated as I often was with the lessons.  She knew I’d far rather be with Papa in his study, learning Greek and Latin and French and Italian, than sewing samplers and practicing embroidery.”

“She despaired of having so unnatural a daughter?” he teased.

“No, she was proud of Papa’s scholarship, proud enough to defy her family and marry him in the teeth of their disapproval.  A Randall of Innisbrook should have done much better for herself than to wed a former Oxford don whose chief goal in life was finding a patron to support his translation projects.  She was pleased that I shared his interests, pleased that my aptitude for languages allowed me to assist him.”

“You copied out the translations for him, even before you began doing it for your brother, didn’t you?”

“Yes.   It began as an exercise, when he was teaching me Greek.  Then, when he developed rheumatism in his hands and writing became difficult, he found that I was able to take down his words as quickly and accurately as he could dictate them.  So I was already quite accomplished by the time he passed the work on to my brother.”

“Still an unusual occupation for a female.”

She grinned.  “Ah, but I am a very unusual female.  Now, if I am to go riding tomorrow, I’d better get that tea for my brother and get back to work.  Shall we meet at the stables around one?  Emily can meet us there.”

“One would be fine.   I need to work on the ledgers in the morning.”

“I’ll have the Dower House Cook make us up some provisions,” she said as she added more tea leaves to the pot and poured in some additional hot water.  “If the tenants don’t press too much food and drink upon us, we can picnic on top of Trethfort Hill.  If it is as fine and sunny as you claim it will be, we’ll get a wonderful view over the South Downs, from Edge Hall village all the way to Charleton.”

Extracting a tray from a drawer in the sideboard, she put her cup and saucer on it, added another set and the teapot, then poured a bit of milk into the cups.  “I’ll see you tomorrow, then.”

“Shall I carry the tray to the library for you?”

“Thank you, but I can manage.  You’d better get back to your reports.  Besides, it wouldn’t do to have His Magnificence, the Duke’s cousin, carrying a tea tray like a lackey.”

“Minx!” he threw at her as, laughing, she hefted the tray and walked out of the room.

She was set to marry a curate, a friend of her brother’s from university, once the young man secured a living sufficient to support her, he knew.  Alex wondered how this lively, intelligent, unusual lady who loved galloping hunters and spending her days transcribing ancient Greek would fare as a vicar’s wife serving a small rural parish.  Where hunters, and scholarship, were likely to be thin on the ground.

He would certainly miss her when she did marry.  That liveliness and intelligence and her always-unexpected view of the world brightened his days as much as her beauty attracted him.  Her brother was polite enough, but not even his doting sister would describe him as “lively,” and her father, though a fine gentleman, was rather garrulous, with a tendency to ramble on and on about his work.  Except when the Duke was in residence, bringing along his secretary, like Alex a gentleman from a modest but respected family, Alex had no other company of his station.

He knew he was welcome to visit the Squire and the handful of gentry families who lived in the area.  But as a bachelor—the Duke had made his remaining unmarried for at least ten years a condition of his employment, a restriction, after his previous unpleasant experience, Alex had embraced--he couldn’t return the hospitality.  And since that stricture was not generally known, neither did he wish to visit any of the local families with marriageable daughters with enough frequency as to give rise to any marital expectations.

Should he be foolish enough to wed, thereby forfeiting his position, the small competence he thus far managed to save from the salary the Duke paid him wouldn’t allow him to support an independent household.  While he knew his father would receive him and his bride back at Wynborne, he’d witnessed first-hand with his younger sister’s marriage how unpleasant it could be to have a wife and a mother-in-law under the same roof.  Nor did he want to add to his father’s burdens the necessity of supporting both him and a wife.  Removing the drain of his expenses  from the family purse had been the main reason he’d accepted the estate manager’s job to begin with.

All of which meant he attended only the celebratory events or holidays for which the whole neighborhood was invited.  Dinner or cards with the Sudderfelds provided the majority of his evening entertainment, and with Jocelyn the most dynamic member of her family, life after she married and left Edge Hall would lose much of its sparkle.

For now, he thought as he doffed his coat, shrugged on his repaired waistcoat, then replaced the outer garment, he would continue to enjoy her company—and hope that her vicar took his time finding a living.

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