Reginald Aiken, Duke of Warwick is dead and his young widow is not grieving…until the will is read.
Isobel Kennilworth Aiken, Duchess of Warwick spent 6 years of her young life in a loveless marriage. Now, at the age of 24, Isobel is a widow. As Isobel awaits the reading of her late husband’s last will and testament, she feels no grief, but in fact is quite hopeful. She is eager to start her life anew. But, as the droning of the solicitor’s voice washes over her detailing the bequests to various servants and family members, a shock awaits her. The “other woman” was not his mistress, but his lawfully wedded wife and together they had a son. Six year old Reggie was now the Duke of Warwick, displacing Reginald’s brother Charles. There is a collective gasp as the revelation is made that instantly displaces Isobel and Charles and dashes their hopes for the future. Isobel must indeed start anew, but not as a titled, influential and wealthy widow, but as plain Miss Kennilworth, tainted by scandal. Can she get past the disgrace and humiliation she has endured and fight her way back into society? Will she find love again with her childhood sweetheart, Andrew Stafford, former vicar, now Lord Saybrooke? Or perhaps she will rekindle the flame with Jeremy Ingles, Lord Westcott, who had caught her fancy at her come out six years earlier, but had not been ready to be leg shackled. But before Isobel can find true love, she must come to grips with her past mistakes and the people she has hurt along the way. She must discover who she is without the title of duchess to her name.
Isobel Kennilworth Aiken, duchess of Warwick, sat expectantly in her chair, the mid-morning sun streaming through the large window of the stately library at Wren House. The sunshine, so rare in London in April, cast a glow over the crowd that was gathered in the room. No one spoke. Dozens of eyes watched Isobel’s black clad figure for signs of distress, none came. She was the picture of elegance and serenity, her lovely face and large gray eyes revealing nothing. Inwardly, however, she was rejoicing. It would soon be over. They had buried Reginald in the family crypt near Warwick Park in Warwickshire and now they were back in Hanover Square at Wren House awaiting the reading of the will. Isobel smiled to herself and sighed. Seated to her left, her Aunt Maude, Lady Whitcomb patted her hand, mistaking the sigh of relief that escaped Isobel as one of sadness.
Reginald is really dead, thought Isobel once more, and soon she could have a new beginning. True, she had not been able to produce an heir. Therefore, Isobel knew that she would be relegated to the dower house in Warwickshire, but she was sure she would be welcome here at Wren House in London. Her husband’s brother and heir, Lord Charles had said as much. He sat beside her, fairly bristling with excitement. He is rejoicing almost as much as I am, thought Isobel. If Reginald had hung on another few months from the wasting disease he battled for nearly two years, Charles would have had to escape the wrath of the moneylenders by fleeing the continent. Lord Charles, second son of the sixth Duke of Warwick, was as rackety as they came, but there was no real harm in him. Of course he drank and gambled too much, as did all his peers, but Isobel knew that deep down, Charles was a good man. At least he wasn’t heartless and cold like his brother. But enough about Reginald. He was dead. She may only be the Dowager Duchess of Warwick, but she was free. Free to begin a new life. She had done her duty and now she was about to receive her reward.
The solicitor, Mr. Pickens cleared his throat, signaling that the reading of the will would commence. The family hadn’t understood the delay and Mr. Pickens, ever the stickler for propriety had refused to say. No one but he and a handful of servants had seen the black-veiled woman slip silently into the room with a young boy in tow. They stood in the back, the woman clinging to her son’s hand. That was Pickens’ cue. He began to read.
“The ninth of April in the year of our Lord, eighteen hundred and seventeen. I, Reginald Wilbur Percival Aiken, 7th Duke of Warwick, Marquess of Crewes, and Viscount of Fenwick, being of sound mind hereby bequeath…”
Pickens’s voice flowed over Isobel like a dream. He named servants and sums that were less than Isobel’s pin money, but to each servant the sum was a boon. The list of servants seemed to go on forever with names she did not recognize. It did not concern her. Pickens droned on past second cousins and cousins. There were no surprises. Those Reginald had approved of were rewarded handsomely. Those of whom he had disapproved were made to feel his displeasure from beyond the grave, including his sister, Letitia, who had wed a loose screw and was living to regret it. Letitia had not bothered to attend the reading.
“And to my wife…” Here Pickens paused and Isobel sat up a little straighter.
“…to my wife,” repeated Pickens seeming loathe to continue, “Adriana…”
There was a universal gasp. Isobel looked hard at Mr. Pickens.
“Surely, Mr. Pickens, one of your clerks has erred. My name is not Adriana.” Isobel’s voice was tinged with ice, something she had perfected in her four years as marchioness and two years as duchess.
“If you’ll allow me to continue, Miss,” Pickens said, decidedly uncomfortable.
Isobel sat wide eyed, staring at the poor solicitor. Miss? Miss! She was not Miss; she was Your Grace, My Lady, or even Ma’am, but never Miss! But she said nothing, her stern gaze speaking louder than words.
Steeling himself, Pickens continued. “To my wife Adriana Vasquez Aiken, I leave the bulk of my estate in trust for our son, Reginald Vasquez Aiken, who upon reaching his majority will assume all responsibilities as the 8th Duke of Warwick, being my legitimate son and heir.
Pickens halted, allowing the shocking news to sink in. No one spoke. Isobel could barely breathe. Even her garrulous Aunt Maude could not speak. Finally, Lord Charles broke the tense silence.
“What impertinence is this? Is this a joke?”
“I am afraid not, Lord Charles. I can assure you that it is true.” Pickens’ disapproval was evident, but as the Duke of Warwick’s representative he would fulfill his duty. “His grace married Senorita Adriana Vasquez in August of ’09 in Spain, near Talavera. They were wed by a Catholic priest. They also wed again in 1811 in Derbyshire, after returning to England, so that no one would question the legality of the marriage, I assume. There can be no doubt that marriage is legal.”
“And I suppose he has the temerity to assume that I will stand as guardian to this little whelp,” Charles said angrily.
“Not at all, Lord Charles. Pray, allow me to continue.” Pickens looked down at the beautifully written last will and testament of the Duke of Warwick and continued reading. “I appoint my wife, Adriana, Lady Warwick as sole guardian, with all the rights, privileges and responsibilities. I trust her like no other.”
Pickens looked around at the shocked faces. He had fought the Duke on this point and lost. He had only one other time in all his years as solicitor appointed a woman as guardian. It displeased him, but he was but a servant to his master’s whim and it was within the constraints of the law. He took a breath and soldiered on. “To my brother, Lord Charles Aiken, to compensate for the inconvenience of losing his inheritance, I leave my unentailed estate in Derbyshire, Hidenwood. I am giving you this property in the hopes that you will leave your gambling and dissipated ways behind and take pride in the Aiken name.”
“Inconvenience? He dares to lecture me about my behavior after this? “Lord Charles face turned crimson with rage.
Isobel watched the proceedings, unable to speak, so dumfounded was she. Pickens continued unmercifully.
“And finally, to Isobel Kennilworth, who married me for my money and position, I leave the home that I shared with my lawfully wedded wife and son at 65 Woburn Place on condition that she retains the current staff for at least one year. In addition, I leave her 500 pounds per annum for life or until she remarries or, more accurately, until she marries. Since our marriage was a sham in more ways than one, I feel no need to justify my behavior. However, as a gentleman I must apologize for the distress this has caused her.”
“Gentleman! Humph!” exclaimed Lady Whitcomb. “No one calling himself a gentleman would commit such a heinous act! Bigamy! My poor, poor Isobel.”
Isobel’s breath came in ragged gasps. She fought to gain control. She would not weep or swoon in front of all these people. Everyone stared at her, waiting for her reaction. Before she could martial her thoughts to speak, Pickens continued with Warwick’s final few thoughts.
“I know many of you are astounded by this revelation. It is a situation I should have remedied long ago, the blame for which I lay mostly at my father’s door. But, what is done is done. I cannot change it from the grave. But I do hope you will afford my son, the Duke of Warwick and my wife, the Dowager Duchess all the respect and dignity due to their new station in life. That is all.”
No one knew for certain whether the concluding sentence was the Duke’s, or the solicitor’s, but it was his final word.
Isobel, still saying nothing rose shakily to her feet. Lord Charles, lost in his own despair ignored her unsteadiness. The aging Lady Whitcomb, instead, did her best to steady her niece, who fought to remain erect. The room was as quiet as the grave. Isobel, at last, spoke with a clear, authoritative voice.
“When must I leave?”
“You have a fortnight to vacate…” Pickens began.
“Take as long as you like. Please. I have no desire to rush you,” a lilting foreign voice came from the back of the room.
Isobel spun to face the speaker, a veiled woman standing in the back. She could not hide the flash of anger that transformed her calm mask. It was gone in a brief second; nevertheless, the woman saw the rage and grabbed her son, pulling him close. The boy’s eyes were as big as saucers.
“Your Grace,” said Isobel, for she assumed that this was Reginald’s wife, her tone as calm as if she had just been introduced at an afternoon tea.
Adriana, Dowager Duchess of Warwick released the hold on her son and slowly raised the veil from her face. Yet again, one and all gasped. She was a stunning woman with black hair, olive skin, full lips and huge dark eyes fringed by impossibly long lashes. Isobel hated herself for admitting that before her was not only a beautiful woman, but a kind one as well. The duchess’ eyes shone with compassion and sympathy. The woman could be a consummate actress, but Isobel did not think so. Goodness seemed to emanate from this raven haired beauty. Isobel hated her all the more.
“I know this is a terrible way to find out about all of this. So many times I begged him to fix this, to tell you. But a charge of bigamy would have meant such a scandal and he was so sick for so long.” The new duchess spoke perfect, if accented, English and had tears glistening in her eyes.
“Scandal?” laughed Isobel without mirth, her icy gray eyes fixed on the widow. “How fortunate for Reginald that he avoided the scandal. I fear we shall not be so blessed.”
Tears began to flow in earnest as the duchess looked into the stony face of the woman she had inadvertently thwarted.
“This is all so horrible. I am so terribly sorry. If it were not for Reggie…” she stammered as her arms once again encircled her young son as he silently faced the frightening lady.
“Ah, but there he is, young Reggie. The heir.” She looked for a moment at the boy. He appeared to be about six or seven years old. He had the look of his father in the shape of his face and he definitely had the Aiken nose, but he had his mother’s raven hair and dark eyes. He also had her temperament it seemed. He was obviously frightened, but his eyes revealed kindness mingled with the fear.
“I will be out of Wren House by weeks end,” Isobel said as she threw a parting, glacial glance at the usurper.
“Please, I truly meant it when I said there was no hurry.” The true Lady Warwick added, knowing her offer would fall on deaf ears.
The butler, Sloane raced to open the door for his former mistress. “Is there anything that I can do for Your Grace…” he inquired.
“I am Isobel Kennilworth, Sloane. Plain, Miss Isobel Kennilworth.” And with that, Isobel left the room, sweeping up the stairs to her rooms where she could scream in private. Behind her she heard Charles’ voice raised in protest and Pickens’ measured tones attempting to placate him. She also heard the tearful apologies of that woman. Her meaningless, belated apologies.
Stunned, Isobel sat motionlessly by the fire in her sitting room wondering how her husband could have done this to her. No, not her husband; Lord Warwick. Correction, the late Lord Warwick. Her numbness began to wear off as anger boiled inside of her. How dare he!
Andrew Stafford, Viscount Saybrooke, sat in the well-worn chair at his club, White’s, sipping his brandy and trying to look interested in what the prosy bore across from him was saying. Lord Welford was expostulating at length about the latest mad-cap phaeton race to Richmond. Lord Saybrooke smiled and nodded at appropriate moments and fervently wished he could be sitting in his study back at the vicarage in Surrey reading a book in preparation for a sermon. But he was no longer a vicar. He missed his church, he missed the pulpit, but mostly he missed the simpler, yet more meaningful way of life. Since inheriting the Viscountcy from his brother nine months ago, he had been making an effort to behave as a peer of the realm and not an insignificant, if dedicated, vicar. In these past months, however, he had often wondered how many of these idle aristocrats did not run mad as a result of their vacuous existences.
Lord Welford droned on and the outwardly attentive Saybrooke now pictured himself, book in hand, at Brentwood, his newly inherited estate in Kent and also his childhood home. But, he was not in Kent. He was here in London, feeling it his duty as Lord Saybrooke to serve in the House while it was in session, as his father and brother had done before him. But why he had listened to his best friend, Finch, who was following the story of the race with delight, and come to White’s instead of remaining home at Stafford House with the longed-for book, he could not say for sure. But, here he was.
Saybrooke, hearing a commotion, turned to see three men trying to mollify and restrain a fourth man, who was clearly distraught and thoroughly foxed. The quartet moved into view and it was clear the trio was trying to convince their friend to calm down and leave Whites. The bosky friend would have none of it, however, and his strident voice, carrying to every corner of the venerated old club, stopped all conversation and even woke some of the snoring ancients who were scattered throughout.
“I will not leave! I am still a member here! No thanks to my brother, damn him. I swear, if he wasn’t dead, I’d kill him myself!”
“It’s that rattle, Lord Charles Aiken,” said Finch unnecessarily to their little group.
“Duke of Warwick, now that his brother Warwick is dead,” Welford corrected. “The Duchess failed to give him an heir.”
Another acquaintance strolled up to Andrew’s group just as Welford made his statement. The newcomer took great pleasure in setting Welford, the know-it-all, straight.
“Ah, so you have not heard the latest. Quite a scandal, I assure you!”
Isobel stayed locked in her room until the late afternoon shadows enveloped the room. She declined any visitors, even her maid, Manning, was banned. Charles had persistently knocked on her door, begging her to let him in, but she refused him. Lady Whitcomb had also tried to breach the privacy of Isobel’s bedchamber, but had been turned away as well. The last thing Isobel needed at the moment was sympathy, though now she was truly in mourning!
Mourning! Isobel looked down at her despised black bombazine dress and smiled sardonically. If she was never truly married to Reginald, then she need not wear mourning for him. Standing abruptly, Isobel began to tear at her dress, attempting to remove it. While she succeeded in ruining the ghastly gown, however, she was unable to free herself from it. She rang for her maid.
“I want to change into the peacock blue sarcenet, Manning,” Isobel said to the wary maid.
“The p-p-peacock, Your Grace?” the surprised woman stammered.
“Manning, I am no longer the Duchess of Warwick, in fact, I never was. You must call me Miss Kennilworth,” Isobel said wearily. “And yes, the peacock. I am no longer in mourning.”
Manning dressed her mistress as quickly as possible and left, inwardly shaking her head. She had no great affection for her temperate, but remote mistress, but she did feel sorry for her. The master was virtually a stranger to her, rarely gracing them with his presence. How he could do such a thing? A duke! As long as she lived with these privileged people, she doubted she would ever understand them. Her Grace – Miss Kennilworth – was such an unhappy person and, her, with all the money she could ever need. Manning shook her head once more, this time outwardly, and walked down the long hallway toward the servants stairs.
Isobel looked at her reflection in the cheval glass. The bright blue-green suited her, coaxing a bit of blue from her gray eyes. Her thick honey colored hair was artfully piled on the top of her head with intricate braids woven through and soft curls framing her face. Manning had added a peacock blue riband to complete the look. She looked well enough, she supposed. She had come a long way from the country girl who had arrived in London for her first season almost seven years ago. What an uncivilized, reckless hoyden she had been. She had been happiest when in a simple cotton frock, her hair unbound and free. But her mother and governess had taken her in hand and she had conformed. Conformed? She had excelled! She had married the Marquess of Crewes, future duke of Warwick! No! She had not, she corrected herself. She was not a marchioness. She was not a duchess. She was plain Miss Kennilworth. “Damn Reginald! If he was not dead, I would kill him!” Isobel said to the enraged countenance of her reflected image. A brief moment later, however, a mischievous smile transformed the angry reflection. Evidently there was still a bit of the hoyden lurking inside after all. Life had dealt her a cruel blow, but she would not sit here and feel sorry for herself.
Her chin high and eyes blazing, Isobel left her bedchamber and descended the grand staircase, noticed only by the footman, James. She entered the Blue Parlor with purpose. Lifting the glass lid of the display case containing her husband’s priceless snuffboxes with her dainty hands, she swept the bulk of them onto the Turkish carpet. The butler, Sloane, hearing the commotion, peeked into the room and watched with alarm as, one by one, his mistress stomped her tiny slippered foot on each of his master’s beloved collectibles, crushing the fragile pieces. And the words coming out of her mouth! Sloane, of course had heard the words before, but never from the refined Lady Warwick. Miss Kennilworth, he amended in his mind, as if the change in her status explained the outburst. I really must do something, thought Sloane in panic and indecision.
“Good Lord, Sloane, what goes on in there?” an aging, but authoritative female voice rasped in his ear. With that he was shoved aside and Lady Whitcomb, quickly surveying the damage, entered the room.
“Now, now, Isobel! We know you are upset, but those pieces are worth a pretty penny.” Lady Whitcomb shouted, her words briefly stopping Isobel from her destructive rant. Isobel looked at her aunt, who had also changed out of mourning into a chartreuse and jonquil striped horror of a gown that made Isobel’s eyes ache.
“Not to me, they are not!” Isobel replied, applying herself to her stomping with renewed fervor.
“Isobel, my dear. Vengeance is never the thing.” Lady Whitcomb said.
Isobel stopped again and looked at her aunt, her eyes flashing with a mixture of rage and confusion. “Aunt Maude, I have played by the rules. And look where it has gotten me. Well, no more.” And with a flourish she grabbed the fireplace poker and smashed the twin Sevres vases sitting on the table just inches from Lady Whitcomb. Lady Whitcomb had all she could do to move her rotund body out of the path of flying glass shards.
“Well, well. There is the Izzy I remember. Back to being a little hoyden are you?” drawled a voice from the doorway.
The voice managed to stop Isobel mid swing, unintentionally saving a Dresden shepherdess. Isobel turned toward the door, the poker still in midair.
“Drew,” she said simply and calmly, lowering the poker. “What are you doing here?”
Copyright© Claudia Harbaugh. All rights reserved.