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When a Duchess Says I Do
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The rabbit’s heaving sides testified to a battle lost, a soul surrendering to death.
Duncan Wentworth remained amid the trees, studying the creature where it lay at the edge of the clearing, a strip of thin leather noosed around a furry back foot. The little beast had been caught on a game run between Brightwell’s home wood and the river, where sunny banks were still green with the last of the fall grass.
The rabbit twitched at a disturbance from the direction of the village, though the snare made flight impossible. Even struggling against captivity might result in a permanent injury, so delicate were the creature’s bones.
A stout, bareheaded fellow in rough garb emerged into the clearing.
“Now aren’t you a fine, fat coney,” the man muttered. “Just the right size to fill up a goodwife’s stewpot.”
A poacher, the bane of every English landowner, and not a poacher on the verge of starvation.
“I told Jeffrey the bunnies love their clover, didn’t I?” he went on. “Too bad for you, little varmint.” He knelt by the rabbit, a serious length of knife gleaming in his hand. “Say your prayers, stupid beast, for you’ve had your last meal. Off to market with you, or my name’s not Herman Treacher.”
Duncan stepped into the clearing. “A moment, if you please, Mr. Treacher.”
Treacher heaved to his feet, the knife held before his ample gut. “You’re on private property, sir, and sneaking up on an armed man is never smart.”
He was faster than he looked, and he clearly knew to watch Duncan’s hands. A career thug, then, rather than a countryman supplementing his means through crime.
Duncan took up a lean against the nearest sapling, an oak struggling to find sunlight amid the mature specimens. The rabbit had been too desperate for nourishment to sense a trap. Tomorrow, a hound or a fox might put an end to such an unwary creature.
Nevertheless, these were Duncan’s woods. He’d sought their tranquility as an antidote to months of posturing among London’s good society. That Treacher would foil Duncan’s plan was the last straw on the back of a camel noted for surliness on a good day.
“As it happens,” Duncan said, “we’re both on private property, though only one of us is trespassing.”
Treacher tossed the knife from hand to hand, a rudimentary distraction Duncan knew better than to watch.
“I’m the one holding the weapon, guv. I’d say that makes you the uninvited guest at the party. Run along, and I’ll be about my business.”
Not bloody likely. Poaching in a forest was a capital offense. If Treacher had any sense, he’d dispatch the witness before finishing off the rabbit.
Alas for Treacher, that scheme did not fit with Duncan’s plans.
The rabbit growled, a sound Duncan hadn’t heard since his youth. Treacher was startled into focusing on his prey for the single instant necessary for Duncan to kick the knife free and tackle the blighter.
Duncan lacked his opponent’s brawn, but he’d spent years brawling as only a minister’s wayward charge could brawl. He had Treacher facedown in the clearing, a beefy arm hiked halfway up his back, when a sharp point prodded Duncan between his shoulder blades.
“Let him up, your worship, and I might allow you to live. Insist on more foolishness, and yon coney won’t be the only one going to his reward today.”
Well, of course. The senior officer had arrived, and Duncan’s failure to anticipate that development meant he deserved the bother of defending his rabbit against two criminals.
He’d been too ready to use his fists, too ready to take out his frustrations on any willing fool. Without easing the pressure on Treacher’s arm, Duncan glanced over his shoulder. Assailant number two was smaller and in possession of an equally shiny, sharp knife. The larger knife lay two feet to Duncan’s left—convenient, because he was left-handed—and could easily be collected as Duncan got to his feet.
The rabbit remained caught, a careless animal, but possessed of enough self-respect to growl at a bad fate. So too, would Duncan give these imbeciles a better fight than they were expecting.
“Get him off me, Jeffy. Bastard’s about to break me arm.”
Not break, dislocate. The challenge was to achieve that aim, grab the knife, rise, turn, and deal with Jeffrey all without stepping on the rabbit. First, Duncan would affect the posture of a man defeated and in fear for his life. Second, he’d—
“Drop the knife.” This voice was feminine, annoyed, and a surprise.
“Says who?” Jeffrey asked.
“A woman holding a gun,” Duncan replied. “And from the look in her eyes, I’d say she knows what to do with it. Madam, good day. Duncan Wentworth at your service, though I apologize for the lack of a proper introduction. A pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
She had dark eyes, probably brown when viewed from bowing-over-her-hand distance. Her hair was the rich hue of mink in summer, her figure on the gaunt side of trim, and she was of barely medium height. She put Duncan in mind of the rabbit—small, spare, ready to bolt.
The lady was not pretty—her looks were too dramatic for that. Defined brows, a determined chin, cheekbones made a tad too prominent by her thinness. She was attractive, though. Holding that gun with an air of impatient disgust, she was undeniably attractive.
“Dammit, Herm,” Jeffrey said, stepping from behind Duncan. “You’ve gone and snagged the bleedin’ property owner. You said he was a London gent what never wastes his time in the shires.”
“Drop the knife,” the woman said, her tone that of a governess on her last nerve. “Now.”
“I’d do as the lady says.” Duncan rose and collected the weapon Treacher had lost in the undergrowth. “Then you’d be well advised to run like the demons of hell are in pursuit.” He tested the blade against the pad of his thumb. “Just a suggestion.”
Jeffrey dropped the knife, even showing enough sense to cast it a few feet away, rather than attempt any dramatics.
Treacher struggled to his feet, cradling his right arm. “Let’s leg it, Jeffy. This was all your idea—nobody else would think to poach in a haunted woods, you said. Now me arm’s half busted, and we haven’t got no rabbit, and the swell is making threats.”
The lady sidled around the clearing, putting herself between the rabbit and the men. The barrel of her gun—a nasty coaching pistol that could easily have brought down a horse—remained marvelously steady in her grip.
“Au revoir, gentlemen,” Duncan said, stepping to the lady’s side. He was ready to let this pair go for now, but he was not ready to see the woman dart back into the woods along with the rabbit and the poachers.
Treacher cast one longing glance at the snared rabbit and lumbered off into the trees, Jeffrey following silently.
The woman dropped to her knees beside the rabbit. “We have to let it go. I need the knife, provided it’s sharp.” She sounded frantic to free the rabbit, though her hand smoothing its fur was gentle. “Do something, please.”
“Have a care,” Duncan replied. “If you inspire the beast to struggling, it can break its own leg, or, worse, mangle that back foot. What’s needed is calm.”
A set of pliers would have come in handy, but the home farm was a good half mile off, and carrying the rabbit, snare and all, such a distance would never serve.
Duncan considered the situation and the woman. She was not a girl, fresh from the schoolroom. He’d spent years in schoolrooms, as both pupil and teacher, and she hadn’t the look of one whose life had been indentured to book learning. Her cloak was velvet and well made, though the hem was dusty and one button was missing near her waist.
She wore no gloves and her hands were clean, though what manner of lady carried a loaded gun when strolling through a peaceful wood?
“The snare is secured by a stake driven into the ground,” Duncan said. “I’ll attempt to lift the stake free so we have some purchase to unknot the leather from the rabbit’s foot. All must be done slowly and without agitation to the captive.”
“You’ve done this before.”
“Many times.” Though not recently, more’s the pity. When he’d freed the snare from its stake, Duncan produced his own knife—much smaller than the poachers’ weapons—and used the tip to work at the knotted leather.
The rabbit bore this all with stoic calm, or perhaps the lady’s soft caresses soothed its little heart. Her scent distracted Duncan—meadow grass with a hint of pine smoke, not a fragrance he’d find in a Mayfair ballroom, but pleasant.
Sturdy and fresh rather than feminine.
“That’s it,” he said, when the knife point had loosened the noose about the rabbit’s foot. “Another moment, and—”
The ruddy little wretch used powerful hind legs to shove itself away from the noose before Duncan could get his knife out of rabbit range. The point of the blade scored the flesh of his wrist, ripping through the cuff of his shirt and creating a bloody mess.
The rabbit darted across the clearing, paused long enough to whump a foot against the earth, then disappeared into the bracken.
“Warning his mates,” Duncan said, tugging one-handed at his cravat. “Some thanks for a heroic rescue.”
“Let me.” The woman batted his hand aside. She withdrew the pin from Duncan’s linen and soon had his neckcloth off. “Was your knife clean?”
“Yes. Though if your concern is infection, I should probably pour the contents of my flask over the wound before you bind it.”
His flask was in the inner right-hand pocket of his coat, which meant her assistance was necessary to produce it, lest Duncan get blood all over his London tailoring. He didn’t give a damn for fashion, but wasting money was, in his estimation, among the deadliest sins. Wasting time surpassed even that offense.
The lady knew what she was about with an injury, and applied a quantity of brandy to the wound. Duncan’s vision dimmed and his ears roared, though the sensation of her hand on his shoulder, and her quiet “Steady on,” penetrated the fire raging along the wound.
“Considering that you’ve arguably saved my life,” Duncan said, as she wrapped his cravat about his wrist, “might you spare me your name?”
She used his cravat pin to secure the bandage tightly enough to suppress further bleeding without causing discomfort. His blood stained the white linen, though the stain wasn’t spreading. A flesh wound, thank God. If Duncan had lost his life to an ungrateful rabbit, his cousins in Mayfair would have laughed at his graveside.
“You should thoroughly clean that wound,” the lady said. “Strong spirits are helpful, but honey is more effective. Promise me you won’t neglect it.”
“The wound will be healed before I can neglect it.” Wentworths were tough. They healed well and quickly, on the outside. “You’re in my woods, alone, where all manner of ruffians apparently lurk. Might I escort you to your destination?”
She collected her pistol and the shorter knife, passing the longer one to Duncan. “That won’t be necessary. Tell your gamekeepers what you came across this morning. Those were professional poachers, not a pair of farm lads trying to add a little meat to their mama’s stores.”
Just like that, she was prepared to leave him in the middle of the woods.
“My thanks, then, for your timely intervention, but I truly must have a name for so brave a rescuer.”
“No, you must not. You are the owner of Brightwell?”
“I have that honor.” Or that challenge. Cousin Quinn’s sense of humor was complicated and given to irony.
Duncan’s ownership of Brightwell looked to be a further annoyance to her, as if she’d found not one but two sets of poachers in her woods. She shoved her pistol into a pocket of her cloak, shook out her hems, and—incongruously, for a woman possessed of both a knife and a gun—bobbed a curtsy.
“I’ll bid you good day. Please see a physician for that wound.”
Duncan would do no such thing. The damned scratch had bled copiously, which always boded well for a swift recovery, and physicians cost money.
“Before you abandon a wounded man alone in the wilds of Berkshire,” Duncan said, “won’t you tell me if I’ve found the ghost in my gatehouse?”
* * *
A lady’s education was a sore hindrance when she needed to curse. Duncan Wentworth was the soul of courtesy, though, so even if Matilda had known some vile oaths, she might not have used them in his presence.
Might not. Life had become unpredictable, and Matilda’s reactions and choices unpredictable as well.
“Both your gatehouse and your woods are haunted?” The compulsion to flee had her heart beating like the snared rabbit’s, but she’d seen the speed with which Mr. Wentworth could move. One moment, he’d been a gentleman at his leisure, lounging against a tree. The next instant, Treacher’s knife had flown through the air, and Treacher had been facedown in the bracken.
“I cannot speak for the spirits inhabiting my home wood.” Mr. Wentworth picked up his battered felt hat and slapped it against his thigh. “If I were a clever poacher, I’d put about word that Brightwell’s forest was haunted, and then add credence to the rumor by carrying a lit torch down the game trails on a moonless night. Some truant boy tippling his papa’s brandy would recite a tale of ghosts to his friends in the schoolyard, and lo, my woods are haunted.”
He’d more or less divined Matilda’s scheme. “And your gatehouse, Mr. Wentworth?”
He ripped the leather noose from the stake, stuffed the cord in his pocket, and threw the stake in the direction of the river. A wet plop followed, though the river was a good twenty yards on.
“My gatehouse is uninhabited, like the rest of my outbuildings. I came up the drive last night after moonrise, and what should I see but smoke drifting from the chimney. No lamps lit, the windows shuttered, but clearly, somebody in residence.”
He noticed smoke by moonlight. I really must learn to curse. “Perhaps Jeffrey and Mr. Treacher availed themselves of your hospitality.”
Mr. Wentworth put Matilda in mind of the leather that had snared the rabbit. Lean, supple, and strong, though his strength would be hard to discern beneath fine tailoring and society manners. He noticed his surroundings, and thus Matilda nearly hated him.
“Perhaps you will avail yourself of my hospitality,” he said. “I am new to the area and would acquaint myself with a neighbor whose timely appearance spared me a good deal of bother.”
I am not your neighbor. “It was of no moment, Mr. Wentworth.” I frequently take the air in woods I don’t own and wave a pistol at ruffians. “I really must be going. Good day.”
She gathered her skirts and would have moved off toward the river, but Mr. Wentworth’s hand on her arm stayed her.
“I must insist, madam. Midday has arrived, and I neglected to break my fast. My cook will be wroth with me if I similarly disregard my luncheon. You did me a great service, and the least I can do is offer you some sustenance.”
His invitation balanced a vague plea with a vaguer threat. Matilda did not believe the plea for one moment, no matter the sincerity in his blue eyes.
She didn’t dare ignore the threat, however, not when he could have her arrested for breaking and entering. With that air of gravitas, he’d easily convince the magistrate that Matilda had been intent on poaching.
Then too, his threat came with an offer of free food.
By tonight, she’d be ten miles away, though she had hoped to winter at Brightwell. The property had belonged to an aging duke who’d died without sons. She and Papa had visited the duke years ago, making Brightwell a regular stop on their summer travels. His Grace would part with a painting in exchange for a manuscript or figurine, and Papa would come away richer for having imposed on ducal hospitality for a fortnight.
In the past week, Brightwell’s gatehouse had been a sanctuary, though, of course, Matilda was trespassing. Another activity for which a lady’s education hadn’t prepared her.
While Matilda sorted through options and mentally bemoaned a lack of criminal skills, Mr. Wentworth pretended to admire the autumn foliage. He was tall, brown-haired, and looked of a piece with the trees shedding the last remnants of their summer finery. Matilda put him at “indisputably mature.” Well north of thirty, still south of forty. He would age well and slowly, and most women would consider him handsome.
Matilda considered him a serious problem.
“The house is in that direction,” he said, gesturing away from the river. “The day is cold enough to justify a toddy, though I’m also in the mood for beef and barley soup. My tastes are not refined, which doubtless drives Cook to despair.”
Oh, ye winged seraphs. A hot, spicy, restorative dose of spirits, a steaming bowl of beef stew…Matilda’s feet started moving without her giving them permission to do so. She hadn’t had fresh bread in weeks, hadn’t had butter since losing her post at the inn.
“I cannot stay long, Mr. Wentworth.”
“All the ladies say that, which is a polite way to remind me that I’m poor company. I set a humble table, my conversation is dull, and my favorite society is that of long-dead philosophers. You may limit yourself to two bites of ham and a single spoonful of compote, then be on your way, if you’re still awake. Ladies have been known to catch up on their slumber when assigned to be my dinner companion.”
He was making a jest of himself, though Matilda found no humor in his remarks. Desperation did this—stole humor, rest, pleasure, all the blessings in life. Then came autumn, when pilfering by moonlight from neglected gardens was no longer possible and orchards were stripped of their fruit. Every ounce of Matilda’s energy was often spent piling up deadfall to burn at night.
Her plan—take a job in service, save money, and eventually take passage from England—had turned out to be no plan at all.
“I have bored you already,” Mr. Wentworth said. “I’d discuss the weather, but that strikes me as belaboring the obvious when in the out-of-doors.”
“Tell me what brings you here from London.”
“How can you tell I’ve come from London?”
Oh…piffle. “You arrived last night from somewhere. Your attire—but for your hat—is exquisite. One assumes your clothing came from London even if you did not.”
She had all but admitted that she recognized Bond Street tailoring—woefully foolish of her.
“I originally hail from Yorkshire,” he said. “Several years ago I moved to London to be with family, and until last month I considered London my home.”
They emerged from the trees into the park that stretched from Brightwell’s back terraces. The formal gardens were a wreck, separated by overgrown hedges and punctuated with toppled statuary and cracked urns. For several mornings past, Matilda had found peace behind these hedges.
“A metaphor of some sort,” Mr. Wentworth said, surveying his gardens.
Despite the sunshine, the scene was melancholy. Dead leaves carpeted overgrown beds, lichens encroached on the walls, and the scent of wood smoke hung in the air. Winter approached with the relentlessness of a funeral cortege.
“Some would say these gardens are romantic,” Matilda replied. A lady’s attempt at conversation.
“Some would be idiots. The cost alone…but one doesn’t discuss finances. I promised you a meal. This way.”
He set a brisk pace down the gravel walk, no pretense of matching his steps to Matilda’s or offering an unneeded arm for her to lean on. She had no grasp of foul language. Mr. Wentworth, she concluded, had little gift for social dissembling.
A fine quality in a man. She’d learned too late to appreciate it.
He led her to a door that opened onto a wide stairway landing. A flight of steps descended into what Matilda knew to be the kitchens, cellars, and pantries; another flight led up to the floor that housed many of the public rooms—parlors, library, music room, gallery.
Between the sun beaming through the tall windows, and the heat wafting up from the kitchens, the space was blessedly, wonderfully warm.
“May I take your cloak?” Mr. Wentworth asked.
Matilda did not want to part with her cloak. Her dress was decent enough—she’d traded away her Paris finery within a week of leaving home—but with every item of clothing she removed, she became easier to describe. A purple velvet cloak was simple to identify. Pair that with a gray wool dress, plain cuffs, half boots with frayed and knotted laces, and she became a specific woman, with specific people looking for her.
Mr. Wentworth’s steady gaze suggested he knew all of that, and lying would be pointless. Matilda unfastened the frogs of her cloak.
“One does wonder how Brightwell came to be yours,” she said. “The house has good bones, and the locals recall it as a lovely property.”
“The locals who claim more than their threescore and ten years, perhaps. The estate was imposed on me. The dining room is this way.”
An evasive answer, which cheered Matilda. A man with secrets was less of a threat to a woman with secrets. She followed Mr. Wentworth down a corridor free of dust and cobwebs, and equally devoid of art, furniture, or flowers.
“The previous caretaker all but looted the place,” Mr. Wentworth said, ushering her into a small parlor. “The excuse of record is that assets were liquidated to pay expenses, but what expenses does an empty house incur? Fortunately, the thieves hadn’t grown bold enough to help themselves to larger items of furniture, and they were too ignorant to steal the best of the art.”
What would Mr. Wentworth think of a woman who’d helped herself to apples, eggs, beans, and other overlooked produce?
That question was rendered irrelevant by the scent of fresh bread, beef stew, and cloved ham. Hunger had made Matilda’s senses sharper and turned Mr. Wentworth’s “humble table” into a feast.
“Ladies first,” he said, pouring water from an ewer by the hearth into a porcelain basin on a side table. Linen cloths had been arranged in a quarter-fan beside the basin, and for the first time in weeks, Matilda prepared to wash her hands in warm water.
“I ought by rights to send you to a guest room for this ritual,” Mr. Wentworth said, “but my staff wasn’t expecting company.”
While Matilda washed her hands and surreptitiously patted a warm, damp cloth against her cheeks and brow—bliss without limit—Mr. Wentworth went to the door and addressed somebody who remained in the corridor.
Matilda’s host washed his hands, as a footman set a second place, bowed, and withdrew. Mr. Wentworth had no sooner seated her than a maid bustled in carrying a quilted shawl lined with flannel.
He took the garment from the maid and draped it around Matilda’s shoulders. Somebody had hung the shawl near a hearth, for the flannel was warm.
She hadn’t eaten for three days. She hadn’t rested well for weeks. She hadn’t been truly comfortable in an eternity, and the sheer delight of a warmed shawl nearly had her in tears.
“Let’s start with the soup, shall we?” Mr. Wentworth said, ladling Matilda a generous portion. He set the bowl before her, and for a moment, she wallowed in the sensation of steam wafting up to her chin. The scent was hearty, the taste…oh, the taste. Salty—salt was necessary for life—rich, aromatic, with a hint of some spice. Tarragon, perhaps, though pepper was well represented too.
Matilda consumed her food slowly because she’d learned what came of gorging after a fast. Mr. Wentworth ate prodigious portions, though his manners were fastidious. The meal should have been awkward—a lady did not dine in a gentleman’s exclusive company, much less with a gentleman to whom she hadn’t been introduced.
A lady also did not have to debate whether to shiver all night or waste another day’s energy collecting wood. She never viewed winter as a mortal enemy, never stared at some farmwife’s laundry while considering whether to commit larceny. Ladies were lucky creatures.
“Another roll?” Mr. Wentworth asked, holding up a basket.
“No, thank you.”
When Mr. Wentworth went to the sideboard for a second helping of ham, Matilda secreted a pair of buttered rolls in her dress pocket. If she’d been told that each roll consumed meant spending a month in the underworld, she could not have given them up.
- On Sale
- Apr 2, 2019
- Page Count
- 384 pages