Enough was enough. “Desist at once, sir, I have no wish to be manhandled by you. I am quite capable of removing the dirt for myself. You had best look to your team, your carriage is in imminent danger of tipping into the ditch.”

His head shot up; his eyes were a peculiar shade halfway between blue and black, his nose patrician and his lips mobile. Warmth spread across her breasts and into her face. She could not tear her glance away; she was pinned like a butterfly on a board by the glitter in his eyes. Then it was gone and he was towering above her.

“Dammit! Out of the way, madam, haven’t you done enough damage already this morning?”

The spirited team stamped and tossed their heads in impatience and the rear wheel of the vehicle began to slide inexorably backwards. Without thinking, she raced to the lead horse and snatched the bit. The gentleman shouted from behind the carriage.

“Good girl, move them forwards as rapidly as you can.”

She ignored his instructions. She was well able to handle his horses without his highhanded intervention. She urged the chestnut sideways following her instincts. Going this way would move the wheel away from danger far more efficiently. The team threw their weight into the traces and the carriage shot forward removing the wheel from danger. Unfortunately the irascible gentleman fell headlong into the ditch instead.

The air was blue; she thought it wise to absent herself as hastily as possible. Quickly checking the brake was on and the reins securely tied around the pole, she prepared to creep away. Although it wasn’t her fault he’d fallen—no doubt he would blame her for his foolhardiness as he had done before.

She prepared to make a run for it. Too late! A dripping figure emerged from behind the horses and strode towards her. She couldn’t help herself; her scream echoed down the lane. Suddenly two black shapes hurtled past and for the second time the unfortunate gentleman was tipped backwards into the noxious water.

Not waiting to see him emerge and seek revenge on the person who was responsible for dumping him twice into the ditch, she raced full pelt down the lane. She scrambled over a five barred gate and tore across the meadow scattering cows in all directions in her head long flight. Her dogs were beside her, tongues lolling out, obviously delighted with the game.

*   *   *

Alexander shook his head, sending foul water in all directions. He scraped the muck from his eyes and watched his quarry vanish down the lane. Who the devil was she? Dressed like a servant but quite obviously gently born. She was a conundrum. He stepped out of the ditch and propped himself against the carriage wheel in order to remove his boots and tip out the water.  It was fortunate they no longer fitted him as snugly as they’d used to.

He tossed his sodden cape on to the box and stared gloomily at his ruined topcoat. The blue superfine jacket had cost him a pretty penny and it, like the rest of his garments, was quite beyond salvage. The young woman was right to castigate him; he had been driving far too fast. He shrugged, he seldom drove any other way, caring little if he came to grief. However, he had no wish to take anyone else with him if he went, and certainly not the lovely young termagant he’d just encountered.

He checked his horses were none the worse their experience and then leaped into his carriage and recovered the reins. His breeches were so wet he slid from side to side as the curricle gathered speed. He had no option, unless he wished to nosedive over the edge he must return to his hunting box at a walk.

His mouth curved as he recalled the shapely young woman with abundant russet curls and sparkling green eyes. His groin tightened as he relived the delightful few moments when he’d been removing the debris from her person. Perhaps that old fool Dewberry was right; now was the time to put his house in order and find himself another wife.

For the first time in many years his pulse quickened. He would discover who the young woman was - perhaps she would do? He frowned. What was he thinking of? The last person he required as his wife was a spirited girl who would make demands on him that he would be unable to fulfil. He had his mistress to take care of his bodily needs. What he wanted was a meek submissive girl, of impeccable pedigree, who would be prepared to remain in the country and provide him with the necessary heir.

*   *   *

Isobel slowed her pace as she approached her home. She had no wish to explain why she’d felt the need to run like a hoyden across the fields. She slipped inside, using the side door as usual, and returned to her apartment without being waylaid by her parents or any of her younger siblings.

Mary, who had been taking care of her since she left the schoolroom, threw up her hands in horror. “Lawks a mussey! Whatever next! You look like a vagabond, my lady. Did you take a tumble?”

“Something like that; an extremely unpleasant and overbearing gentleman attempted to run me down. It was a miracle I didn’t meet my Maker at his hands.” Laughing at her maid’s expression, Isobel kicked off her clogs and untied the bow holding her cloak in place. “But he got his comeuppance. He fell into the ditch twice and quite ruined his smart clothes.”

Her abigail clucked and tutted as she removed the soiled garments, Isobel allowed her mind to wander at the unexpected encounter. Who could this gentleman be? From his demeanour and appearance she was sure he was a wealthy man, someone used to giving orders. An unexpected frisson rippled down her spine as she recalled the breadth of his shoulders, the length of his legs and the feel of his hands as they travelled up and down her body.

He was a handsome man, but too autocratic and quick tempered for her taste. He must have a box somewhere and have come down to shoot; perhaps she might make discreet enquiries from their own gamekeeper. Evans was bound to know who owned a property of this sort in the neighbourhood.

“There, my lady, I shall do what I can to restore your gown. I have sent for hot water, and there’s a good fire in your parlour.”

Isobel pushed her arms into her robe and smiled at her maid. “Anything, Mary, as long as it’s warm. I expect you already know why I was summoned to the library earlier?”

“I do, my lady. If you will forgive me for saying so, I think it’s high time you were seen in Society and found yourself an amenable husband.”

For some inexplicable reason an image of the dark eyed stranger flashed across her mind. Heavens above! Imagine what her life would be married to such a one? A gentleman like him would not suit her at all for he would forever be making demands on her. She hastily turned away hoping her pink cheeks had not been noticed. She wasn’t exactly clear what took place in the marital bed, but the thought of him touching her naked body made her pulse race. Pushing such wanton thoughts firmly away, she went to sit in front of the fire until her washing water arrived and she could put on a clean gown.

Her father would be waiting for an answer. Perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad to spend a few weeks in the capital with her favourite relatives. As Mary quite rightly said, at nineteen years of age she would be one of the older debutantes on view. However, whatever her parents might think she had no intention of selling herself to the highest bidder. She knew her duty, but would never agree to marry a man she could not at least feel affection for.

Chapter Two

Grosvenor Square, March 1811

Alex riffled through the pile of invitations on the silver tray in his study. His glance fell on one from Lord Illingworth, he was launching his daughter and his niece at a ball that very night. He flicked over the card and quickly scribbled an acceptance on the back and rang for a footman to take it around. It was decidedly bad form to reply so late, but he was certain the cachet of having a duke at the ball would make up his bad manners.

Spreading out a fresh piece of paper he sharpened his quill and wrote down what he was looking for in a bride.

1. Impeccable pedigree.

2. Quiet.

3. Not bracket faced.

Вы читаете The Duke's Reform
Добавить отзыв


Вы можете отметить интересные вам фрагменты текста, которые будут доступны по уникальной ссылке в адресной строке браузера.

Отметить Добавить цитату