Never the Duke, Always the Captain (Preview)

Chapter One

Captain Hugh Everett startled awake by a distant shout. The gentle motion of the ship that rocked him to sleep had morphed into a violent sway that almost threw him from his bed. Immediately alert, the last vestiges of sleep banished by the adrenaline that sparked through his veins, he hurried to the window. The rounded glass was splattered with sea spray, the salt rendering details slightly more difficult to make out but in no way minimizing the roiling sky. Pillars of rain reached down to the thrashing waves, and Hugh was almost thrown back as the ship lurched.

Cursing, he stumbled out of his room and up onto the deck, where water sloshed across the weathered wood.

“Sailor,” he shouted, grabbing the closest man to him. Wilson, he remembered dimly—the man’s name was Wilson. “What’s the situation?”
“The Captain fears the ship will be capsized,” Wilson yelled back, straining to be heard of the roaring wind. His eyes, wide and filled with fear, darted to the crashing waves. The ship, large in the ordinary way of things, was tossed from wave to wave as a child might throw a toy—with utter carelessness. Hugh had never seen such waves before; they dwarfed the ship. “All passengers are to remain belowdecks, sir.”

Hugh knew he ought to return to his cabin, but every part of him yearned to stay on deck, though the risk of being swept away was significant if he remained. Another insistent wave grabbed at his legs as the ship tipped, and he seized a nearby rope for support.

“Captain Everett.” The ship’s mate, his face rugged from years in the sun and salt, glared at Hugh. “Get back to your cabin. Cap’n’s orders.”
Hugh’s feet skidded across the soaked wood as he staggered down the steps back towards his room. His belongings bounced from one wall to the other. If the bed hadn’t been fastened to the floor, that too would be flung across the room.

He sat on the edge of his bed and felt in his pocket for a now grimy blue ribbon. Once, it had been the pale blue of the morning sky, and he still remembered the way his youthful hands had closed around it for the first time.

Now, his hands were rougher and less youthful, though only a handful of years had passed since then. The ribbon had at first been a symbol of everything he couldn’t have; now, it was his good luck charm. One he needed today more than ever before. This was a storm of Biblical proportions, and though he’d never anticipated the sea being the thing to take his life, perhaps this was how he was meant to die.

Let me live, he prayed, holding the ribbon to his mouth—though to whom the prayer was directed, he couldn’t be sure. Let me survive this storm.

The ribbon still pressed against his lips, he closed his eyes and waited for the morning.


Viscountess Arendale’s rose garden was exceedingly lavish. Audrey rarely considered herself fond of flowers, but one would have to be particularly hard-hearted—or perhaps blind—not to appreciate the beauty of these lush blooms. With a single gloved hand, she cupped the petals of the nearest rose and peered into its center. Blushing pink faded to a deeper, duskier shade that reminded her of the sky at sunrise.
Her mother, the Countess of Burdane, cleared her throat, attracting Audrey’s attention. “What do you think of Lord Talbot, my dear?” she asked, with a pointed glance at her daughter.

Audrey folded her hands in her lap. “Is he not a little young?”

Viscountess Arendale, who had been the one to put forward Talbot’s name as a potential bachelor in the upcoming Season, considered. “You may be right. He’s a fresh-faced boy, though you can’t deny he’s got a bit of his father about him—and his father was a popular man when he was in his prime.”

“I agree,” Audrey’s mother said, “but at his age, I hardly think he’ll be looking for a wife.”

“I’m looking forward to meeting the Duke of Dudlington,” someone else said. “I heard he’s on the marriage mart this season.”
The marriage mart. Audrey always hated that term, as though gentlemen and ladies were merely items on display to be chosen and purchased.

Her mother raised an eyebrow. “The Duke has expressed a wish to marry?”

“Did you not know?” Another young lady, with curls that looked altogether too uniform to be natural, leaned forward around the table. Her blue eyes danced from face to face until she was sure she had everyone’s attention. “I heard his mother tell Lady Sinclair that since his late father’s death, he believes it is time he sought a wife.”

Although Audrey’s mother was not so uncouth as to nudge Audrey, or indeed show any sign that she held anything more than polite interest for this particular piece of news, Audrey knew herself to be under scrutiny. She allowed herself a polite smile but nothing more. The Duke had been present at several events she’d attended, and she’d noticed his smoothness of address and dark eyes even before she’d noticed his title—although then she hadn’t known he was looking for a wife.

And now, in this exclusive group of ladies in which she was privileged enough to have a place, he had been deemed the most eligible bachelor of the Season. It was enough to make her heart flutter in her chest.

“Just imagine being courted by the Duke of Dudlington,” Lady Wraxall said, with a slightly mournful look. She’d married a somewhat older gentleman, last year. Although the match was said to be a happy one, and it had conferred greater status, there was no denying the Earl of Wraxall, in his forty-second year, was in no way as dashing as the Duke of Dudlington. “I rather think I’d swoon.”

Knowing her opinion was better kept private, Audrey merely kept her eyes down on her gloves, where the roses had left a smear of pollen. If she were given the opportunity to speak with the Duke, she rather suspected she wouldn’t swoon. Not that he was not as likely a candidate as any, but rather she had never been induced to faint and thought it unlikely that any man, no matter how handsome, could bring her to do so now. Swooning was reserved for ladies with weaker constitutions, and Audrey hardly felt herself to be a woman so overwhelmed by a man’s presence that she would faint at the mere sight of him.


In the carriage on the way home, Audrey let out a sigh and leaned her head against the velvet seats. “It was such a shame Olivia couldn’t be here,” she said. “Her migraine came at an unfortunate time. She would have loved to hear all about the dashing Duke of Dudlington.”

“Yes,” her mother agreed absently. Audrey knew that look; it meant she was thinking of things beyond them in this carriage. “Although this information will hardly benefit her—after her first Season, I don’t think it’s likely she’ll attract the attention of the Duke, my love.”

Olivia Jennings, Audrey’s cousin, and her parents’ ward, had made an unsuccessful debut last season and her prospects looked unpromising this year. Audrey couldn’t give a reason for this lack of success. It was true Olivia’s complexion was not as smooth as she’d have liked—she did have a great many freckles—and her red hair was too brassy to be considered a more refined auburn. But neither of these things was such a great problem to Audrey’s mind. However, physical features and a rather unfortunate fashion sense aside, Olivia had a small dowry to her name and was sponsored by Audrey’s parents, the Earl and Countess of Burdale. Audrey would have expected Olivia to have at least found one suitor.

She glanced at Lucy, her lady’s maid, who gave a small, repressed smile. Later, she would confide everything she had learned about the Duke of Dudlington to Lucy, but now was not the moment.

Suddenly, carriage lurched forward, and Audrey was almost thrown from her seat. “What the—” her mother began, but with another sickening lurch, the carriage tipped.

Audrey braced her hands against the wall of the carriage as it tilted. Panic, red-hot and piercing, lanced through her, and she screamed as she slid down her seat into Lucy.

With a metallic groan, the carriage fell onto its side. With a thud that knocked the breath from her lungs, Audrey landed against the door. Her leg ached where the handle dug into her thigh. Partially underneath her, Lucy moaned weakly.

Dazed, Audrey looked at the door above her and tried to reassemble her world. Outside, a horse snickered, and male voices shouted.
She shifted off Lucy and turned to face the girl. Lucy’s face was unnaturally pale, and her eyelids fluttered.

“Are you all right?” Audrey struggled to keep her voice calm. “Lucy, are you hurt?”

“Only my leg, m’lady.”

“Can anybody hear me?” a voice called from outside the carriage. Low yet authoritative, it was the voice of a man who was accustomed to being obeyed.

“Hello?” Audrey’s voice was faint, and she pressed a hand to her throat. He had to hear her. He had to. “Hello? Can you hear me?”
“I can hear you,” the voice said. “Stay calm. Are you hurt?”

She glanced at her mother, who appeared shaken but unhurt. “I am unharmed, but my maid has injured her leg.”
“You there, help me right this carriage. There are ladies inside,” there are ladies inside.

Once again, Audrey braced herself as best she could. Her mother, a little more in possession of her faculties, took hold of the seat, and after an alarming creak, the carriage heaved back upright.

The door opened, and Audrey did her best to control her expression at the familiar dark eyes that faced her. The man who had saved them was none other than the Duke of Dudlington.

“Your Grace,” she said, scrambling her thoughts together. “That is to say—”

“My lady.” He bowed and offered her mother his hand. “Please, allow me.”

In nervous anticipation, Audrey waited as he handed her mother from the carriage and returned for her. His hand was warm and solid, wrapping tightly around hers as he helped her out onto the street. Their horses, two high-stepping bays that her father had personally purchased, had been freed from the crumpled remains of their carriage. They stood on the cobbles, snorting and tossing their heads.
“Thank you,” she managed as the Duke helped Lucy from the carriage.

“Yes, thank you, Your Grace.” Her mother, pale but finally in possession of her faculties, sank into a curtsy. “We’re most grateful for your assistance.”

“Oh—please excuse my manners,” the Duke said. “We have not been properly introduced. I’m the Duke of Dudlington at your service.”
“The Countess of Burdale,” her mother said. “This is my daughter, Lady Audrey Burton.”

Audrey curtsied, wishing she were anywhere but on a dusty street, her hair in disarray and with an imperfect hold on her composure.
The Duke bowed again to each of them. “Delighted to make your acquaintance, Countess, Lady Audrey.”

“Delighted,” her mother repeated.

Audrey took in the surrounding devastation—her father’s carriage would not be fit to be driven again—and gasped at the sight of their coachman sat on the pavement, his head covered in blood. A man she did not know tended him.

“Not to worry,” the Duke said, following her glance. “Your coachman took a nasty blow to the head, but we were extremely fortunate to have Mr. Foster, a physician, passing by at the moment of the accident.”

“He will make a full recovery,” Mr. Foster said. Like her father, he had a full head of gray hair, and there was something so calmly reassuring about his demeanor that Audrey couldn’t help but relax. “If you ladies would wait just a moment, I would like to take the liberty of examining you as well.”

“Of course,” Audrey’s mother murmured.

The Duke removed his jacket and spread it across the pavement. “Please, sit.”

Audrey privately thought that a bit of street dust would hardly be a problem after being in a carriage accident. Still, Lucy was leaning increasingly heavily on her arm, and she helped lower the girl to the ground. Once sat, she realized her vision was spinning.

“As soon as Mr. Foster has finished examining you all; you must allow my carriage to take you home,” the Duke was saying, and her mother thanked him in enthusiastic tones.

Audrey swallowed. If the young ladies at Viscountess Arendale’s garden party could have seen her now, they would have been wildly jealous—and here she was, too dazed to truly appreciate the moment.

Mr. Foster approached and examined them each in turn. Audrey and her mother, as she suspected, merely had a few scrapes and bruises, but Lucy had sprained her ankle. Mr. Foster recommended she keep the weight from her leg for two weeks.

Once the examination was complete, the Duke politely led them to his waiting carriage. The Countess offered effusive thanks, and before they knew it, they were in the carriage he’d called for especially for them. He instructed his coachmen to drive exceedingly cautiously, bid them farewell, and they were off.

Audrey’s mother, her composure quite restored by the attentions the Duke, gave Audrey a significant look. “Well, my dear, that was a piece of good fortune.”

“The carriage overturning and Lucy hurting her leg?” Audrey said, her tone sharp. “I hardly think so.”

“Of course, it’s unfortunate poor Lucy was hurt. But I was referring to meeting the Duke in this way.”

“He was very kind,” Audrey admitted, “although I feel meeting him in a more conventional way might have been preferable.”

“Do you think so?” Her mother’s smile was enigmatic. “I think, my love, you have a little to learn about men.”

“Do you think him more disposed to like me now?”

“I shall be astonished if he doesn’t seek you out. Mark my words, Audrey—you have captured his attention. Now see if you can capture his mind.”

“And his heart?”

Her mother’s smile broadened. “If you have his attention and his mind, his heart will follow.”


Chapter Two

When Hugh opened his eyes, he was reassured to find the roof of his cabin intact above him. To his left, the window showed a clear blue sky and a calm sea—and in the distance, the London docks.

He had survived.

The blue ribbon was still clutched in his hand. Once again, it had brought him luck. For a moment, he sat on the bed staring at its familiar sheen, dimmed now from its years spent in his pocket.

“Here,” she said, laughing as she pulled the ribbon from her hair and handed it to him. “For luck.”

And luck it had brought him, though he hadn’t seen her in many years—and doubted he ever would again. Hugh certainly had no intention of reviving that particular friendship—his actions had destroyed it forever. Though he still believed his intentions had been honorable and correct, he would never forget the look in her eyes as he scorned her.

But now was not the time to be thinking of such things. Hugh rose and tucked the ribbon away, out of sight by his heart. For now, he would think of happier things: soon, he would be home and would see his mother again. That meant more to him than the murky memories of his past.

And they had won the war. Now was a time for celebration.

Fully dressed, he joined the other soldiers on deck as they pulled into London’s docks, and he embraced the sound of it—the sound of his home. After bidding goodbye to the men he’d considered his brothers during his three years at war, he made his way on foot back to his mother’s home. In his letters, he’d been deliberately vague to keep the precise date of his return a secret. He couldn’t wait to see the look on her face when she saw him again after all these years. At eighteen, when he’d left, he’d been a boy. Now, at one-and-twenty, with everything he’d seen behind him, he was a man.

His mother, Bridget Everett, lived in a modest townhouse in Cheapside. His late father had been a successful merchant, and although they hadn’t lived in a fashionable part of town, it was comfortable enough and provided for his mother’s needs. Since Hugh had achieved the title of Captain a year ago for saving the Duke of Dudlington’s younger brother—a feat he had considered in the ordinary line of duty and in no way worthy of acclaim—he’d been able to pay off the mortgage.

“Hugh?” his mother whispered as she opened the door to find him on the front step. At her face, creased with a smile even as tears sprung to her eyes, he grinned. “Oh, my Hugh—I didn’t know you’d be back so soon.”

He embraced her and rubbed her back with a rueful grin as she wept on his shoulder. “I must say I expected this to be a pleasant surprise.”
“Of course, it’s a pleasant surprise, you rascally boy. Come in, come in. I’ll ask Cook what we’ve got to eat, though heaven knows it’ll just be something plain. I live modestly, you know when there’s just me.” She pressed her hands to her face and sighed. “I wish your father could be here to see you now.”

Hugh’s smile tightened. His father had passed away while he was away at sea a year previously; his mother still wore her widow’s weeds. Although he’d decided not to embark on an official period of mourning now he’d returned, his father’s absence still grieved him.
Dinner was a small affair, marked most notably by the outflowing of his mother’s love towards him. “Few things have changed around here,” she said. “My biggest question is what you intend to do now you’re back.”

“Intend to do?” Hugh laughed. “Mama, I’ve spent the past three years fighting for our king and country. Haven’t I earned the right to a bit of rest?”

Her brows pulled together, and she glanced away. In the light of the flickering lamps, she looked older than she had when he’d left. The orange light highlighted the lines that framed her face and the cut of sorrow around her mouth that didn’t fade even when she smiled.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“There’s something you need to know. I’d hoped—but then that would be foolish. You’re so young. Wait here. I have something for you.”
Puzzled, Hugh remained in his chair as his mother hurried from the room and returned shortly with a sealed letter in her hand.
“As you couldn’t be there when your father—when he… He wrote you a letter.”

Hugh swallowed as he broke the seal. When his mother’s letter had arrived informing him his father had perished from typhus, he hadn’t thought he’d have another opportunity to hear from his father again.

How many nights he’d wondered what he would say if he had just a few minutes by his father’s bedside. How many conversations had he played through in his head?

How many times had he wished for a letter such as this to be in his hands now?

With his heart heavy, he read through the contents of the letter, which had been written by an increasingly shaky hand. Its contents were short and to the point.

My dear boy,
The physician has informed me I have little time left, and so I take pen to paper—though you know I despise the process—to write to you.
When I’m gone, your mother will be alone. When the war ends, and it will end soon, I ask you to consider the future carefully. Find a wife who will carry on the family name and bear you sons. Make your mother happy—it is her lifelong wish to see you settled, and I know you value her happiness beyond all things. It is my wish, too. War can bring you grief and pain; marriage will bring you healing. Trust me on this, son: marriage settles a man, and it’s the best way—nah, the only way to move past the devastation of war. Let it bring you and your mother stability, and let it, as I deeply hope it will, bring you the same joy my marriage brought me.
I must go. By the time you receive this, I will be gone. Reflect on my words. I know you will make the right choice.
Your loving father,
Jacob Everett

Hugh lay the paper across the table and stared blankly at the opposite wall. He was one-and-twenty—hardly an age to be settling down.

Marriage had been so far from the question that he barely knew how to respond to his mother’s anxious inquiry about the contents of the letter.

“Read it,” he said briefly, pushing the missive and rising. “Father says I must reflect.”

“Oh, Hugh, you know your father—”

“And then,” he said, striding from the room, “I must prepare to marry.”


Audrey toyed with her curls as she sat beside Olivia at dinner. Burdale Manor was filled with the most prominent members of the ton to celebrate her debut ball, many of whom she’d had occasion to meet at prior engagements. The Duke of Dudlington sat opposite her but one, engaged in conversation with Lord Rutledge, who spoke of little but foxes.

“… The best method of engaging in the hunt is to commit….”

The Duke glanced up and met her gaze before glancing away again, a small smile on his lips. Audrey’s entire evening had been consumed with those glances—they were never improperly long but frequent enough to assure her she dominated his thoughts.

And she had taken great care in ensuring she would. Lucy had practiced with the curling tongs until they had perfected the ringlets that framed her face, and her gown was of the finest silk. Just the color of the blushing roses in Viscountess Arendale’s garden, she had insisted a delicate pink would bring out the gold in her hair and highlight the color that so often suffused her cheeks. Once, Audrey had been embarrassed by how easily she blushed. Now, especially with the Duke looking at her so frequently, she embraced her propensity to blush. After all, a little color was becoming, was it not?

She turned to Olivia on her right. Unfortunately, her cousin had chosen a garish puce dress that, although exquisitely made, did little for her complexion or the ruddy hue of her hair.

“You’ve barely touched your food this evening, Livvie,” Audrey said. “Are you quite well?”

Olivia returned her concern with a sniff of disdain. “You worry too much.”

“You ought to eat something. The glazed apples are delightful. Would you not try some?”

“I told you—I’m fine.”

Audrey leaned back to her seat and glanced up in time to encounter the Duke looking across at her once again. Not for the first time, she had ample opportunity to appreciate the strong line of his nose and a rather fine chin one usually found on Greek statues. He really was beautiful, if beautiful were ever an epithet to be bestowed on a man.

After dinner, during which Audrey had been careful not to overeat, dancing could begin. Audrey’s dance card was nearly filled by nameless young men she had no genuine interest in. Still, to be popular was flattering, and she forced a smile at every infatuated head that came her way.

Until the infatuated head belonged to none other than the Duke of Dudlington.

As young ladies were wont to do, she’d been perfectly aware of everyone he’d spoken to, making a graceful loop around the room until he finally encountered her and Olivia. Olivia, perhaps knowing that the Duke would never approach her, moved a little to one side and gazed at the far wall with apparent rapt interest.

“Lady Audrey,” the Duke said, bowing over her hand. “What a pleasure to see you here looking so well.”
“Indeed, this is a rather less dramatic mode of meeting.”

“I cannot be sorry it was I who came across you that day, not another gentleman.”

Oh my.

Audrey’s heart fluttered in her chest, and her wretched cheeks bloomed with color again. “You flatter me, Your Grace.”

“Only as far as you deserve to be flattered. Would you do me the honor of this next dance?”

For a split second, Audrey glanced across to where Olivia lingered, her dance card resolutely empty. Not one gentleman had asked her to dance in the entire evening, and guilt rose in her stomach as the Duke took her gloved hand and led her out onto the dance floor.

“The Earl of Burdale has an estate in Yorkshire, does he not?” The Duke placed his hand, very correctly, on her waist. “It’s a beautiful part of the country. Did you enjoy living there?”

Audrey smiled at the recollection of diving across the estate with her spaniel, Peggy, in a very tomboyish fashion. “Very much so.”
“Aside from partaking in occasional carriage accidents, do you have any interests?”

“I love watercolor painting,” she said with perhaps more enthusiasm than was proper. “There was a lake on my father’s estate, and I used to paint there. Sometimes, flocks of geese would swim across, but in particular, there was a willow tree that… Oh, it was beautiful. I painted it at least twenty times.” She allowed herself a wry smile. “No doubt there’s a drawer somewhere at home stuffed with all my attempts.”

“Were there any you were pleased with?”

“The last, I believe, is accomplished enough I would not be ashamed of it.”

He smiled, and a shiver ran down her back to her toes. “If it should ever find its way to London, I should be glad to see it. While my artistic skills do not rate very highly, I collect paintings, and I have a keen interest in art. Watercolor, in particular.”

“If you expect me to believe—” she began, but a shriek interrupted her. The orchestra halted, the notes jarring, and Audrey turned to find Olivia lying on the floor surrounded by guests. Her stomach twisted into knots.

“Allow me through,” a gentleman said, breaking through the circle that had formed around Olivia. Audrey recognized him as Mr. Foster, the man who had happened upon them after the carriage accident. Her father called upon Mr. Foster after their mishap to thank the man for his assistance, and finding him to be quite the pleasant gentleman, had invited him to this evening’s ball.

“Padron me,” Audrey said, pushing through the guests until she was at Olivia’s side. Mr. Foster kneeled beside the fallen girl and waved smelling salts under her nose.

“Ah, there we go,” he said as Olivia’s eyes fluttered open. “May I have some assistance in carrying this unfortunate young lady to the parlor?”

“Of course.” Audrey’s father, the Earl of Burdale, turned to face the guests. “My ward has just become a trifle overheated,” he said, commanding attention in that effortless way of his. “She is well now. Please, let us continue with the dancing.”

Murmuring swept through the ballroom, but Audrey could barely hear it as her father lifted Olivia and carried her through into the parlor. So consumed by her cousin’s welfare, she didn’t even think to look for the Duke of Dudlington until it was too late.

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