Nancy Drew + Jane Austen with more kissing
Why Dukes Say I Do
Even in London society—where everyone knows what you did last season—you never know who’s next in line to walk down the aisle…
TRUE LOVE IS OFTEN FOUND
With her whirlwind social life in London, Lady Isabella Wharton has little interest in the customs of the country. But when her godmother asks her to pay a visit to her bachelor grandson in Yorkshire, Isabella can’t refuse. It behooves her to please the old dowager, since she harbors one of Isabella’s most scandalous secrets. So off she goes to see the newly-titled—and notoriously rustic—Duke of Ormond…
WHERE YOU LEAST EXPECT IT
Trevor Carey doesn’t care about what goes on behind ballroom doors. He is content with the simple life—and isn’t ashamed to admit it to a society flirt like Lady Isabella. But the country air brings out a different side of Isabella—one full of longing and passion. Can her sophistication be hiding a desire for love? When a blackmailer from the city arrives to threaten Isabella, Trevor will shield her from harm—even travel to London. Can the duke tackle the ton on Isabella’s behalf …and manage to keep her all to himself?
Trevor Carey, Duke of Ormonde, pulled his hat down lower over his face to keep out the rain as he guided his horse toward home. His shoulders were already beginning to ache from the effort of helping haul William Easter’s cart back up the banks of the swollen Nettledale River. Yorkshire in spring was given to rain, but this year had been a particularly wet one, which had proved to be more than the normally serene Nettledale—and the ancient bridge over it—could handle. Will had decided to risk the bridge, and as a result the cart had slipped over the edge and into the drink.
It had taken six men and nearly four hours to retrieve the cart, which had been loaded down with goods from York for Easter’s village shop. Thankfully the bed of the cart hadn’t been submerged, so most of the stock was salvageable. But Easter had broken an arm and had been banged up quite a bit. A small price to pay, Trevor thought, considering a cracked skull might have ended with Easter drowning in the river. Now, he was exhausted and wet and starving and wanted nothing more than a hot bath and a bowl of Mrs. Tillotson’s stew.
Peering up ahead through the twilight rain, he cursed at the realization that the dark shadow he’d been watching was not a stand of trees, but a carriage tilted at an awkward angle.
Did no one have the good sense to stay in on a day like this?
As he approached the large carriage, which had been built for comfort rather than agility, Trevor heard a woman’s voice coming from the interior of the vehicle.
“Liston, stop fidgeting. You will do yourself some further injury.” The voice was a refined one—doubtless of some lady who was passing through town on her way to one of the neighboring estates. She had the sound of one who was accustomed to giving orders and having them followed. But it was clear from her aggrieved tone that the fidgety Liston was not an obedient servant.
“But Lady Isabella,” he heard a man’s voice say, “I shouldn’t be in here with you. T’aint right for me to share the interior of the carriage with ye like I was puttin’ on airs.”
“Don’t be absurd,” came the abrupt reply. “You were injured when the carriage crashed. It’s not as if you are in any fit state to…” Trevor bit back a smile at her abbreviated words. “That is to say, you are injured and it would be foolish for you to catch your death out in the rain all for the sake of my reputation. Which, as you well know, is not what it might have been in any event.”
Reaching the listing vehicle, Trevor saw that the axle of the right front wheel was broken. The carriage horses, their heads bowed under the desultory rainfall, whickered at the approach of Trevor and his mount, Beowulf.
The occupants of the carriage must have heard him approach, for the lady’s voice rang out into the night. “Hello? Hello, out there! I warn you, do not attempt to harm us. My….my husband has a pistol!”
As if she’d nudged him into adding the words, her companion shouted as well, “Aye! I’m armed and dangerous!”
Dismounting, the duke left Bey under the cover of a large elm tree and approached the carriage. “I mean you no harm,” he said loudly. “I’ve just come from the village and wish to offer my assistance.”
There was a long silence in which Trevor imagined the haughty lady and her groom silently argued whether to accept his help. Then as he watched the carriage door opened slowly.
Stepping forward, he peered into the carriage and saw a lady huddled against the squabs of the interior, her pelisse and shawl clutched tightly around her. Her companion was a man of middle years, whose wan face and arm clutched tightly to his chest indicated that he was the injured Liston.
“We were on our way to Nettlefield House when something happened to the carriage wheel,” the lady said, her lips tight. Were it not for her cool expression, Trevor was quite convinced that she would have been among the most beautiful women he’d ever seen. Even in the dimness of the interior carriage lamps, her dark hair gleamed mahogany in sharp contrast to her porcelain complexion. Her figure, what he could see of it, was buxom. Perhaps moreso than fashionable, but he had never been much of one for fashion. He liked a woman with a bit of substance. “My coachman and outriders have gone on ahead to the house to fetch help,” she went on. “I assure you we will be quite well, though I thank you for stopping.”
“Are you expected at Nettlefield House?” he asked, racking his brain to remember if either of his sisters had told him they were expecting friends sometime soon. He was about to go on, explaining that he was the master of the house, when she interjected.
“I’m sure I don’t know what business it is of yours,” she said, waving her hand dismissively. “Unless you are the Duke of Ormonde, which you clearly are not,” she looked him up and down, obviously rejecting the idea out of hand, “then I really would appreciate your assistance in getting us on our way. My man here is injured as you can plainly see.”
Trevor bit his lip, fighting the urge to laugh aloud at her cutting remarks. Though he was technically the duke, he took no pleasure in the title. Clearly, this Lady Isabella was some sort of social climber who had to Nettlefield in search of the new duke to beg some favor of him. There hadn’t been many who were willing to travel such great lengths to win his favor, but there had been enough that he recognized a supplicant when he saw one
If she were expecting him to be a dim-witted yokel, however, then he’d give her one.
“Aye,” he said slowly, tugging his forelock in a sign of obeisance, “I can see yer man is hurt bad like. Bu’ won’t do ye no good iffn ye catch the death ‘o cold yerself, beggin’ yer pardon m’lady.”
“Just what I been trying to tell ‘er,” the unfortunate Liston said with a nod.
“Help’ll be on its way soon enow,” Trevor went on, guilelessly, paying no heed to Lady Isabella’s pursed lips. “I thin’ it would be best iff’n ye come up wi’ me on Bessie.”
Lady Isabella’s brows drew together. “Bessie?” she asked querulously.
“Aye,” Trevor said with an agreeable nod, getting into his role. “Bessie are t’best horse in all Yorkshire an’ make no mistake. She’ll carry you up wi’ me no trouble a’tall.”
The lady’s nostrils flared. “Is there some reason why she might have had trouble?” she asked silkily.
“Well, ye’re no li’l slip of a thing,” Trevor said widening his eyes innocently. “Beggin’ yer pardon, milady.”
He could all but see the steam coming from her ears. And yet, she didn’t raise a fuss as he thought she might. Instead, she looked back at Liston.
“Will you be well if I leave you here, Liston?” she asked the injured man. “I would send you away with this…this person if I thought you might ride with him without doing yourself a further injury.”
Trevor felt a pang of conscience at seeing her genuine concern for her servant. Still she had not yet proven herself to be anything other than what she seemed. A prickly society lady who had come to Nettlefield to prey upon the dukedom of Ormonde. Doubtless she had some sort of charity to fund. Or a sibling who needed schooling.
“Aye, milady,” Liston said, his pale face determined. “I don’t want you out here catching your death simply because I was too foolish to keep meself from taking a bit of a tumble. Go wi’ this fellow and get to the house. Jemison and Jeffries will be here with someone from Nettlefield before ye know it.”
“If that’s the case,” she said, looking uncertain, “then perhaps I shouldn’t…”
But Trevor was tired from his earlier labors and the rain was beginning to come down harder. “Come, milady,” he said firmly, dropping his guise of happy farmer for a moment, “let’s get ye up to Nettlefield house. I know the master would have me head for keepin’ ye out here this long.”
With a grim nod, Lady Isabella buttoned up her pelisse and donned the cloak that lay spread out behind her on the carriage seat, pulling the hood up over her carefully dressed hair.
Trevor offered her his hand, and though she glanced quizzically up at him, she took it and allowed him to assist her from the carriage. Fortunately she’d worn heavy boots for the journey, because the ground was a soggy, muddy mess. To his surprise, she was taller than he’d supposed, her nose almost aligned with his own when she stepped out next to him. Their eyes locked for one heart-stopping moment, before she colored up and looked away.
Well, he thought with an inward grin. Perhaps the prickly London lady was less prickly than he’d at first surmised. He felt his body respond to her nearness in the automatic way it always did when confronted with a pretty girl. But there was something about this one that felt different. Which clearly meant that he’d been awake for far too long. He needed to get this chit back to Nettlefield so that he could reveal his true identity and send her back on her way. He didn’t like forcing a woman out onto the road so soon after her arrival, but if she’d come uninvited to beg, or worse at his grandmother’s behest than there was no reason for him to feel any sympathy for her.
Didn’t stop him from feeling a churl, though.
“Up ye go,” he told her, gripping her around her trim waist and lifting her to sit sideways across Bey’s saddle. Without further ceremony he put his foot in the stirrup and mounted up behind her, slipping a protective arm around her waist to hold her steady.
It was a surprisingly intimate situation between strangers, and Trevor tried to steel himself against responding further to her nearness. But it was impossible to ignore her lavender scented hair, and the more natural, primal scents of female sweat and something that he knew instinctively was simply her.
Directing Bey into motion with a touch of his heel to horse’s flank, he clenched his jaw and tried to ignore her. Which proved impossible given the way that her reluctance to hold onto him put them both in danger of falling. They might be atop the same horse, but Lady Isabella kept herself as far away from his body as possible.
“I won’t bite,” he said, unable to hide his amusement at her diffident grip. Ignoring her protest, he held onto her more tightly. “Unless you wish it, of course.”
He waited for an outraged gasp, but she had no doubt decided to ignore him. A few moments later, however, she said, “It’s funny. You sound like an unschooled peasant one minute, and then the next your voice has a distinctly upper class accent.”
Caught out, Trevor thought with a frown. “I don’t suppose you’d believe that I received lessons from the local vicar?” he asked.
“Not for a moment,” she said grimly.
“Well, then, Lady Isabella,” he said calmly, “I’m afraid that I’ve misled you a bit.”
“Rather more than a bit, I think,” she said sharply. “Though I suppose the lack of proper introduction excuses you, under the circumstances…” she paused deliberately, “your grace.”
“I do not use the title, as you would know if you’d done any sort of investigation at all.” He kept his gaze on the road ahead of them.
He felt her head shake against his chest. “I would not have believed it if I had not seen it with my own eyes,” she said. “I knew of course that you had been raised in the country and had some sort of foolish notion about refusing to take up your responsibilities, but I thought that it was an exaggeration. But it’s true.”
“You and I both know that it’s not possible for me to give up the title completely,” Trevor said reasonably. “And I fear that my grandmother’s tale of my refusal to take up my responsibilities is, like much of her talk, an exaggeration. I consult regularly with the stewards and secretaries of the duchy, I simply do not choose to go to London or to set myself up in grandeur at the ducal estate.”
“So you choose to remain here in Yorkshire playing at the role of gentleman farmer,” Lady Isabella said with a shudder. “I cannot say that I understand your position because I do not.”
“I choose to remain here in Yorkshire because it is my home,” he said stiffly. “I have a responsibility to the people of Nettlefield and I intend to remain here, dukedom or no dukedom.”
“Now,” he went on, “what brings you to Yorkshire, my lady? Are you perhaps a distant cousin in need of a loan? A young widow whose son wishes to attend Eton? Or did you come at my grandmother’s behest to persuade me to come down to London?”
She did him the courtesy of not misunderstanding him.
“The latter,” she said calmly, as if he hadn’t just accused her of being a toady. “Your grandmother has need of you in London. She is quite ill.”
“Bollocks,” he said, not bothering to guard his language. “She has need of my position because she does not have enough power on her own as the dowager. And if she’s ill then I’ll eat my hat. She sent you here to lure me with your looks—which are quite splendid by the way—back to town so that she can direct me as she sees fit. Which will not happen while there is breath in my body.”
“Oh dear,” Lady Isabella murmured. “You are quite averse to the notion, aren’t you?”
“I am indeed, so you may return to London at once and inform her grace that I have no intention of dancing to her tune.”
“I can hardly do so at the moment given the state of her travelling carriage,” Lady Isabella said calmly. “I hope you do not mean to refuse me accommodation, your grace,” she put special emphasis on his title. “Rustic though I suppose it must be.”
“I can hardly do so and continue to call myself a gentleman,” Trevor returned. Though he’d like to, just to prove a point to his grandmother. But the punishment would be for Lady Isabella, not the dowager. Which would be fruitless. “And fear not. I believe you will find Nettlefield up to your, no doubt, exacting standards.”
They rode along in silence until finally they reached the lane leading to the manor. It was full dark now and visibility was such that only the front step was illuminated in the gloom. Even so, the house was not an unimpressive sight. Nettlefield had been built sometime in the seventeenth century by a prosperous squire whose descendent had sold the property off some two hundred years later to Trevor’s father, who had been in search of a place to settle his young family. The facade was grayed with age and weather and rather dour, but it was home.
“Your grace,” Templeton, his butler said from the top step, “We had begun to fear you’d met with some misadventure.”
Dismounting, and reaching up to lower Lady Isabella to the ground, Trevor was pleased to see her mouth agape. Rustic accommodation indeed, he thought wryly.
“Templeton, see that the blue room is readied for our guest,” he told the butler, offering Isabella his arm as he led her up the steps. “Lady Isabella Wharton will be our guest for a few days before she returns to London.”
If Templeton thought there was anything untoward about the fact that his master had returned home with a strange lady on his arm, the older man didn’t mention it.
“Of course, your grace,” the butler said bowing to their guest as they moved into the hallway. “Lady Isabella, may I offer you a warm welcome and offer my assistance should you need anything during your stay.”
“Please have Mrs. Templeton send a tea tray into the sitting room,” Trevor said, assisting Isabella to remove her cloak, and handing it to a waiting maid who seemed to have appeared from nowhere.
He was leading Isabella toward the stairs when a whirling dervish in the form of his sister Belinda came bolting into the hallway. “Trevor! Thank goodness you’ve returned! Flossie is about to give birth and I fear that she simply won’t rest until she sees you!”