Two possible futures loom before Miss Anne Davenport. The first option: sharing an unhappy home with her father and soon-to-be stepmother. The second: a life of independence at the Spinster House—if only her friend, Cat, would vacate the premises and marry the Duke of Hart. A well-placed whisper about the pair’s secret tryst might speed the course of true love. But the duke’s stubborn cousin poses an obstacle. A ridiculously handsome, very persuasive obstacle…
Nate, Marquess of Haywood, has spent his life looking out for the duke, hoping to stave off a family curse. The only way to keep his cousin alive is to keep him single. That means convincing the intriguing Miss Davenport that her lovely lips could be put to far better use than gossiping. Kissing, for instance. In fact, the Marquess is beginning to hope that Miss Davenport’s destiny lies not in the Spinster House at all, but with him, forever…
"MacKenzie’s romances are always a delight to read, filled as they are with feisty females and the brawny, brainy, often befuddled men who love them."
"...a well-written, poignant read."
~RT Book Reviews
"MacKenzie is a master at deftly mingling mirthful writing, marvelously amusing characters, and madcap plotting into one delightfully entertaining literary confection."
~John Charles, ReaderToReader.com
Haywood Castle, 1797
Ten-year-old Nate stopped with his hand on the library door.
“I just got word from Wilkinson,” he heard his father, the Marquess of Haywood, say from inside the room. “The Spinster House spinster has died.”
Something—a book?—slammed into something else. “God’s blood! And now poor Marcus will have to choose the new spinster. Oh, how I hate Isabelle Dorring. I hope she’s burning in hell.”
Nate gasped. His mother never talked that way.
His parents must have heard him, because the door swung open.
“Nate! What are you doing lurking there?” Father asked.
“I-I left a book in the library, Father.” Nate swallowed. His cousin Marcus lived with them because Marcus’s father had died from Isabelle Dorring’s curse. “Is Marcus all right?”
Father smiled, putting a comforting hand on Nate’s shoulder. “Of course he is. He just has to go to Loves Bridge and choose a new tenant for the Spinster House, that’s all.”
Nate didn’t like that. His mother had told him many, many times how her father and Marcus’s father, how all the Dukes of Hart since the third duke, had died before their heirs were born, all because Isabelle Dorring had cursed their line. He was certain Isabelle was an evil old ghost, haunting the Spinster House.
“Can I come, too?” He was two weeks older than Marcus. He was used to watching out for his cousin.
Father’s smile widened. “That would be splendid, Nate. I’m sure Marcus will be happier with you there.” He looked at Mum and said, with false enthusiasm, “We can make an outing of it.”
Mum frowned and shook her head. “No. No, I wish I could go with you. You know I do. But I can’t bear that place.” She came over to hug Nate. “Keep Marcus safe for me, Natey.”
Mum always said that. And Nate answered the way he always did.
“Of course I will, Mum.”
* * * * *
Haywood Castle, 1808, eleven years later
Nate sat by his mother’s bed, heart heavy. His father had died the month before; he was afraid his mother was dying now. It was as if she’d lost all desire to live in a world that did not include her Philip. Still, he hadn’t thought she’d fade this quickly. She’d been fine—well, sad, but still alert—last night. This morning, however . . .
She was so pale and shrunken. She’d been in and out of consciousness ever since her maid had called him to her bedside an hour ago.
He frowned. Marcus would want to be here. He’d sent word to London, but it was unlikely his cousin would arrive in time. Mum’s breathing was so labored—
Her eyes flew open. “Gerald,” she croaked, mistaking him for her long-dead brother.
“It’s Nate, Mum.” He leaned close so she could see his face. “Do you want a sip of water?”
“Nate!” She grabbed his hand, ignoring his offer. “Nate.” She swallowed. “Keep Marcus safe.”
He patted her fingers to calm her, swallowing his brief annoyance that she was using her last breaths to talk about his cousin rather than him. “I will, Mum. You know I will.”
“I couldn’t”—she struggled for air. “I couldn’t keep Gerald safe.”
She was too agitated. He needed to calm her, but how?
He hated feeling so helpless.
“It’s all right, Mum.”
She acted as if she hadn’t heard him. “If I hadn’t been so selfish . . . if I hadn’t married Philip . . .”
“But you loved Father.” He’d never doubted that. His friends’ parents might have taken lovers, but not his. Their dedication to each other had been as much a constant in his life as the sun rising.
Her head moved fretfully on the pillow. “Yes, but Philip could have married anyone. Gerald had only me.” Her hold tightened, her nails digging into his skin. “Keep Marcus safe for me, Natey.”
“Of course I will, Mum.” The words flowed from long practice.
“The curse . . . it will get stronger. When Marcus turns thirty, you’ll have to watch him very, very closely.” She tried to sit up.
He pressed her gently back against the pillows. “Perhaps Marcus will fall in love, Mum,” he said soothingly, “and break the curse.”
For a woman who appeared to be on the verge of death, her grip was like iron. “No, he won’t.”
“But he might, Mum.” Love matches weren’t common among the ton, but they did happen. “He’s only twenty-one. He’s got time. And when he does find a girl to love, the curse will end. It will all be over.”
“No!” Her fingers convulsed, her eyes boring into his, a wild desperation in their depths. “Don’t you see? The curse can’t be broken.”
“Of course it can. If a Duke of Hart marries for love—”
Her face twisted. “That’s a lie. My father loved my mother. I know he did. And he still died.”
Mum had never said this before.
She must be confused. It wouldn’t be surprising. No matter how strongly one believed in an afterlife, facing death must be terrifying.
And if love wouldn’t break the curse, Marcus was condemned to a long, lonely life.
Well, not a long life.
Nate made soothing noises. He didn’t know what else to do.
“Promise me—” Mum gasped for air. “Promise me you’ll keep Marcus safe”—she swallowed—“for as long as you can. Even if you have to put off marrying yourself. Nothing is more important than Marcus’s safety, Nate.”
Poor Mum. He would promise her anything if it would ease her passing.
He struggled to speak calmly. “Yes, Mum. Don’t worry. I’ll watch over Marcus. I swear I will.”
At last the stiff fear drained from her face. She let go of his hand, giving him a sweet smile. “You’re such a good boy, Natey. I know you’ll keep your word.”
And then she lay back, her eyes drifting closed. A look of peace flitted over her face just before the last bit of color left it.
His mother was dead.
Loves Bridge, May 1817
Nathaniel, Marquess of Haywood, strode across the road from Cupid’s Inn, arguing with himself.
Slow down. You don’t want to attract attention. You can’t burst into the vicarage in a panic. Think how angry Marcus would be.
He stopped and took a deep breath. This was Loves Bridge, not London, and Miss Hutting, the woman he feared wished to trap his cousin into marriage, was a vicar’s daughter, not a conniving Society chit.
And Marcus had told him she wanted to be the next Spinster House spinster, not the next Duchess of Hart.
But she spent hours alone with Marcus the other day, including some time in the Spinster House. Think what could have happened there!
Nate clenched his teeth and started walking again.
He should have been more suspicious when Marcus accepted this dinner invitation. A sane man wouldn’t voluntarily sit down to a meal with a vicar, his wife, and their countless children. He’d let his guard down, that was it. Loves Bridge was the curse’s birthplace, so he’d thought the villagers would realize the Duke of Hart had to avoid marriage at all costs. Once the duke said his vows and bedded his wife, the poor man started counting the months left him on this earth. For two hundred years, no Duke of Hart had lived to see his heir born.
I am not going to let that happen to Marcus. I have to remain alert, especially now that Marcus is thirty.
Just look what had happened when he’d let his attention wander in London a few days ago: Marcus had ended up in the bushes with that Rathbone hussy, her dress falling down for all to see.
Hell, Lady Dunlee, London’s leading gossip, had seen.
Marcus wouldn’t end up in the bushes at the vicarage, of course, but that didn’t mean—
“Good evening, Lord Haywood.”
“Ah!” Nate took several quick steps back. Oh, Lord, talk about not remaining alert.
Two old ladies with white hair and bright, prying eyes blinked up at him. They must be the Boltwood sisters, the leading gossips of this little village. What wretched luck.
He forced his lips into a smile and bowed slightly. “Good evening, ladies.”
“Looking for some company, my lord?” The shorter of the two batted her eyelashes at him.
Nate repressed a shudder. “No. My thoughts are company enough, madam.”
The other old woman clicked her tongue. “A handsome young lord like you alone with your thoughts? That will never do.”
Her sister nodded and then waggled her thin white eyebrows suggestively. “We happened to see Miss Davenport loitering around the Spinster House.”
“She was looking quite lonely.”
A very inappropriate part of him stirred.
Miss Davenport had arrived at the inn the other day just as he and his friend Alex, the Earl of Evans, were coming to have a pint and wait for Marcus to finish posting the Spinster House vacancy notices—accompanied by Miss Hutting. Later, Marcus had told them Miss Davenport was also hoping to become the next Spinster House spinster.
Unbelievable! She should have men lining up to beg for her hand in marriage. That day at the inn, the sun had touched her smooth honey-blond hair, making it glow. He’d gazed down into her blue eyes as he’d opened the door for her and felt himself being pulled deeper and deeper. . . .
He frowned. He’d seen dark currents swirling below her polite expression and had a sudden, bizarre urge to ask what was troubling her. Thank God Alex had spoken then. She’d looked away, and the odd connection he’d felt with her had broken.
And it would stay broken. He was not in the market for a wife. Of course not. Not only did he have to guard Marcus for as long as he could, he was only thirty, too—far too young to consider marriage.
Oh, blast. Now the Misses Boltwood were snickering and nudging each other.
He sniffed in his haughtiest manner and looked down his nose at them. “I am quite certain Miss Davenport would not welcome my intrusion into her solitude, ladies.”
Though the thought of Miss Davenport a spinster—
No. The woman’s matrimonial plans—or lack thereof—were none of his concern.
“That Spinster House!” The shorter of the Misses Boltwood curled her lip and snorted. “I can’t imagine what Isabelle Dorring was thinking. Spinsterhood is an unnatural state.”
The other Miss Boltwood nodded. “A woman needs a man to protect her and give her children.”
Her sister elbowed her, waggling her eyebrows again. “And keep her warm at night.”
Since both ladies looked to have reached their sixth or seventh decade without nabbing a husband themselves, their enthusiasm for the activities of the marriage bed was more than a little alarming.
“As you must know,” Nate said, “Miss Dorring had good reason to distrust men. It’s not surprising she would wish to offer other women a way to live comfortably without a husband.”
The taller Miss Boltwood shrugged and flicked her fingers at him. “Bah. From all accounts, Isabelle knew what she was about. Her mistake was letting the duke into her bed before she’d got him to the altar.”
“Though you must admit, Gertrude, that if that duke looked anything like this duke, poor Isabelle can be forgiven for getting her priorities confused.” The shorter Miss Boltwood’s lips curved in what could only be considered a lascivious fashion. “Have you seen the man’s calves? His shoulders?”
These elderly ladies can’t be lusting after Marcus.
The thought was too horrifying to contemplate.
“I’m not blind, am I, Cordelia? And what about his—”
“I’m afraid I must continue on my way, ladies.” It might be rude to interrupt them, but it was necessary. Some things could never be unheard.
“Oh, yes, of course.” Miss Gertrude winked. “Here we are, keeping you cooling your heels when you must be anxious to meet Miss Davenport.”
“I am not meeting Miss Davenport.”
No! Where the hell had that thought come from? There was nothing unfortunate about it. He had no time for nor interest in a marriageable woman.
“You aren’t the duke, my lord,” Miss Cordelia said. “You don’t have to worry about the silly curse.”
Miss Gertrude nodded. “And Miss Davenport is a comely armful in need of a husband.”
Very comely . . .
He must get these wayward thoughts under control. Miss Davenport might be the most beautiful woman in the world, but she was not for him.
“I doubt if Miss Davenport would agree she’s in need of a husband.” He bowed again. “If you will excuse me?”
He didn’t wait for their permission. He wanted to get out of earshot as quickly as possible.
He wasn’t quick enough.
“The marquess has an impressive set of shoulders, too, Gertrude.”
“Yes, indeed. Miss Davenport is a very lucky woman.”
He resisted the urge to turn and shout back at them that he had no interest in Miss Davenport.
Which would be a lie.
But he could have no interest in the woman. What he had—must have—was an immediate interest in Marcus’s safety.
No. Slow down. Don’t be obvious. Marcus hates it when he knows I’m spying on him.
And he wasn’t spying, precisely. He was merely keeping a watchful eye out.
He strolled toward the vicarage, which just happened to be directly across from the Spinster House. Was Miss Davenport still there? He didn’t wish to encourage any gossip, but surely it wouldn’t be remarkable to engage the woman in conversation if he encountered her. Actually, it would be an excellent thing to do. That way, he could watch for Marcus without being obvious about it.
Splendid. Miss Davenport was still there, dressed in a blue gown that he’d wager was the same shade as her eyes. A matching blue bonnet covered her lovely blond hair. She was slender, though not too slender, and just the right height. If he held her in his arms, her head would come up to his—
Bloody hell! I’m not holding the girl in my arms.
He jerked his eyes away from her—an action that was far harder than it should have been—to look toward the vicarage. What luck! Marcus was just leaving. Miss Hutting was with him, but in a moment the girl would—
He stopped and blinked to clear his vision. No, his eyes had not deceived him. Miss Hutting had just pulled Marcus into a concealing clump of bushes.
Hadn’t Marcus learned anything from the disaster with Miss Rathbone?
It was the blasted curse. Marcus wouldn’t do anything so cabbage-headed if he was in his right mind.
But what can I do to save him? I can’t “accidently” barge into those bushes.
He glanced back at Miss Davenport. Oh hell, she was staring, too. If she told anyone what she saw—
His blood ran cold. If those gossipy Boltwood sisters got wind of this, Marcus would be hard-pressed to avoid parson’s mousetrap, particularly as Miss Hutting’s father was the parson.
Well, this was something he could attend to. He’d have a word with Miss Davenport. Surely he could persuade her to keep mum.
* * * * *
Baron Davenport’s daughter, Miss Anne Davenport looked at the Spinster House. It wasn’t a remarkable edifice. In fact, the place looked like all the other village houses—two stories, thatched roof, of average size. It was much smaller than Davenport Hall, the comfortable house she shared with her father.
And might all too soon share with a stepmother and stepbrothers.
Anne’s fingers closed into two tight fists. How can Papa wish to marry a woman a year younger than I am?
She forced her fingers to uncurl. There was nothing mysterious about the situation. Mrs. Eaton was a widow with two young sons. She’d proved her procreative abilities—and Papa needed an heir.
And if—when—Papa married Mrs. Eaton, Anne would have to turn over all control of Davenport Hall to her, after almost a decade of making the household decisions herself. That thought had been so distressing, she’d considered marrying anything in pantaloons just to have a home of her own.
But then she’d thought what must happen when the pantaloons came off.
She shivered—and not with anticipation. Not that she knew precisely what happened in the marriage bed, but she had a general idea. And even if a woman’s marital duties were no more demanding than shaking a man’s hand, that would be too much. She’d yet to find a male she wished to spend five minutes with, let alone a lifetime.
She looked back at the Spinster House. It would be spacious for a woman living alone.
She’d not given the place much thought before. She’d been only six when Miss Franklin, the current—no, the former–spinster had moved in. Miss Franklin had been very young at the time. Everyone expected her to be the Spinster House spinster for forty or fifty or even sixty years, if she enjoyed good health. So when Papa had taken up with Mrs. Eaton, Anne hadn’t thought the house might offer a solution to her problem.
But just days ago, to the surprise and shock of the entire village, Miss Franklin had run off with Mr. Wattles, the music teacher, who had turned out to be the son of the Duke of Benton and was now, with his father’s passing, the duke himself. Even the Boltwood sisters hadn’t sniffed out that story, and they were almost as accomplished at ferreting out secrets as Lady Dunlee, London’s premier gabble grinder.
Which all meant the Spinster House spinster position was open again. The Almighty—or possibly Isabelle Dorring—had answered Anne’s prayers.
But Jane and Cat want the house, too.
Jane Wilkinson and Catherine Hutting were her closest friends, Jane a little older than Anne, Cat a little younger. They’d grown up together, giggled together, shared confidences, cried on each other’s shoulders. Cat and Jane had comforted her just the other day when she’d told them the sorry tale of Papa and Mrs. Eaton. She would do anything for them.
Except give up my chance at the Spinster House.
Speaking of Cat, was that her voice she heard? She glanced across the road, up the hill to the vicarage—
Her jaw dropped, and she blinked. No, she hadn’t imagined the scene. Cat had just darted into the trysting bushes—and the Duke of Hart had gone in after her!
Her thoughts raced. What should she do? Run for the vicar? No, Cat might be ravished before she got back with him. Scream? That would only have people rush to help her.
I’ll have to save Cat myself.
She took a step toward the vicarage—and stopped.
Wait a minute. Cat led the duke into the bushes, not the other way round. In fact, the duke had hesitated, as if he wasn’t entirely certain joining Cat in the foliage was a good idea.
Perhaps he was the one who needed rescuing.
Anne stared at the shrubbery. It had been several minutes, and neither Cat nor the duke had emerged. There was no screaming. The branches weren’t thrashing about. Clearly no one was struggling to get free.
Which could only mean they were doing something other than fighting in there.
Heavens! There was only one reason a couple went into the trysting bushes, and it wasn’t to discuss the weather.
Excitement bubbled up in her. If Cat married the duke, there would be only two candidates for the Spinster House: herself and Jane.
But Cat didn’t want to marry. She wanted to live on her own and write novels.
Or maybe she just didn’t want to marry Mr. Barker, the stodgy farmer Cat’s mother had been throwing at her head these last few years. The duke was nothing like Mr. Barker. He was handsome and wealthy. And he didn’t have an annoying mother living with him. If Cat married the duke, she’d have time and room to write as many novels as she wanted. She could—
“Ack!” She jumped several inches above the walk. Dear God, the Marquess of Haywood is at my elbow.
Her heart gave an odd little jump as well. And why not? The man presented a very, er, pleasant picture. With the strong planes of his face, his straight nose and sculpted lips, he could be a Greek statue come to life. Any woman would find him attractive.
Not to mention his warm hazel eyes seemed to look straight into her soul. When he’d opened the door for her at the inn the other day, she’d had to clench her hands to keep from brushing back the lock of brown hair that fell over his brow.
He’d been so serious then, so unlike his friend, the Earl of Evans. Lord Evans had laughed and flirted, but when Lord Haywood had spoken—just a few polite words—odd tendrils of warmth had curled low in her belly. Even now, though his tone had been rather harsh, his voice sent excitement fluttering through her.
“I didn’t see you approach, my lord.” Anne mentally chided herself for how breathless she sounded.
At least the man hadn’t noticed. Or perhaps he had and it annoyed him. His brows slanted down farther.
“You didn’t see me because your attention was elsewhere.”
He sounded disapproving. Well! She wasn't the one engaged in scandalous behavior.
“Indeed, it was. I was quite surprised—shocked, really—to see His Grace bringing his London tricks to Loves Bridge, exploring the vegetation with a marriageable female.”
Lord Haywood’s mouth flattened into a hard, thin line, his aristocratic nostrils flaring. “Miss Davenport, I—”
His frown moved from her to the large black, white, and orange cat who’d appeared at their feet. “What the—?” He pressed his lips together, clearly swallowing some less-than-polite comment. “Go along, cat.”
The cat sat down and stared at him.
“That’s Poppy,” Anne said to fill the oddly strained silence. “She lives in the Spinster House.”
The marquess transferred his glare from the cat to Anne and then back to Poppy.
“Now what’s the matter with the animal?”
“What do you—? Oh.” Poppy was behaving rather strangely. She’d arched her back, hair standing all on end, and was hissing. But it wasn’t the behavior in the vicarage bushes that she was objecting to. It was something down the walk toward the inn.
“I think the Misses Boltwood are coming this way,” Anne said.
Poppy must agree. She yowled and darted toward the Spinster House.
“Blo—” Lord Haywood caught himself again. “Blast. I just encountered them headed the other direction.”
“Well, I suppose it might be another set of elderly ladies. They are still too far off for me to be certain. In a moment I’ll be able to—what are you doing?”
The marquess had grabbed her hand and was tugging her in the direction Poppy had taken. She dug in her heels and tugged back.
“Oh, good Lord.” The marquess gave her a very exasperated look. “I’m hauling you out of harm’s way, of course. Perhaps they haven’t seen us yet.”
Sadly, a part of her wanted to go with him, but the more sensible part urged her to resist. Vanishing into the trysting bushes with a man was bad enough, but going inside an empty house—with bedrooms and beds!—was far worse. “Lord Haywood, the Spinster House is locked.”
“I know that. I’m following the cat into the garden.”
She’d just come from the garden. It made the trysting bushes look like a few small shrubs. “The garden is completely overgrown.”
“Precisely. The vegetation should hide us nicely.” He pulled on her hand again. “Hurry along, will you? Do you want those gossips to find us together?”
An unmarried man and woman conversing in public by the village green wasn’t at all remarkable, but with this man it suddenly seemed shocking. And it was true the Boltwood sisters could weave a tale that made sitting in Sunday services sound sinful.
All right. If she was being completely honest, the thought of going into the wild Spinster House garden with Lord Haywood was surprisingly thrilling. Silly, really. He looked like he was more likely to throttle her than kiss her.
She stopped resisting and let him pull her toward the garden. She would have heard if the ton considered the marquess dangerous. All anyone ever said of him was that he’d dedicated his life to keeping his cousin single—to the point of remaining single himself—and thus safe from Isabelle Dorring’s curse.
Perhaps she shouldn’t mention she was hoping the duke would marry Cat.
Thank God Miss Davenport had stopped resisting him. The thought of dealing with the Boltwood sisters again, with all their waggling brows and annoying innuendo—oh, Lord, no.
And it wasn’t just his comfort he was thinking of. Certainly Miss Davenport would not appreciate the salacious suggestions the old ladies were sure to make about the two of them.
He followed the path the cat had taken along the side of the house, past a decrepit lean-to, and through a gate.
“Mind where you step,” Miss Davenport said from behind him.
“What?” He looked back at her.
“I was just here, you know. The path is rather—ack!”
Her feet must have got tangled in the ivy that was running amok over almost every inch of ground. She pitched forward.
He caught her, but her momentum overbalanced him. Clutching her to his chest, he scrambled to regain his footing, but the ivy—and the blasted cat, who chose that moment to dart past—defeated his efforts. They went crashing backward into an overgrown bush.
“Oof!” All his breath rushed out as he landed on the ground—and Miss Davenport landed on top of him.
At least he was able to break her fall.
“Oh dear. Are you all right, Lord Haywood?”
All right? He would be all right if he could only get some air, but his lungs were flattened. He blinked up at her.
Their trip through the shrubbery had knocked her bonnet off and sent her pins flying. Her lovely blond hair tumbled down around him, curtaining them in an illusion of privacy. Her eyes were wide, her lovely mouth open. If he could move, he could cup the back of her head and draw her close enough to kiss.
Which would be a colossal mistake.
“Say something, my lord.”
“Uh.” A bit of air—filled with her scent—managed to make its way through his nostrils.
She smelled wonderful. He shifted slightly—and realized her legs had landed on either side of his. Her feminine part was cradling his male bit.
Fortunately his body was so focused on trying to breathe that his cock hadn’t yet stood up to greet its visitor.
He should lift Miss Davenport off him. He would, as soon as he could get some air into his lungs.
Miss Davenport wasn’t waiting for him to recover his breath. She began thrashing about. Since she didn’t look alarmed by his proximity, he surmised she was merely trying to extricate herself, but her skirts were impeding her efforts.
And her knee was within an inch of ensuring he never sired any children.
He clamped his hands on her arse to hold her still.
Mmm. She had a lovely rounded arse. He’d like to stroke—
“Lord Haywood, release me immediately!” She wriggled, trying to free herself, and his cock responded to the lovely friction with predictable enthusiasm.
She froze. Oh ho, so she recognized that sign of male interest.
“Lord Haywood,” she hissed, “if you don’t release me at once, I shall scream.”
At least he could finally breathe again. He opened his mouth to tell her he would gladly let her go—well, perhaps not gladly—if she would only be careful where she put her knee, but she was already opening her mouth, getting ready to—
“Did you hear something, Cordelia?”
“Come on. Let’s go look in the garden.”
Zeus, it would be disastrous if those two old gossips found them in such a compromising position, and if Miss Davenport screamed, they would definitely be found.
This called for quick and decisive action.
He pulled Miss Davenport’s head down as he rolled them deeper into the vegetation.
* * * * *
One moment she’d been inhaling, preparing to scream, and the next, her mouth was covered by Lord Haywood’s and she was under, rather than on top of, him.
Oh, God. Panic roared through her and she tried to buck him off, but he was far too heavy. It was like trying to move a slab of rock. Perhaps she could free her mouth—
No. When she tried to twist away, he trapped her head with his large hands.
She would get free. She squirmed again and—oh, dear Lord. Something long and hard and heavy was pressing insistently against her leg. She’d swear it was even bigger than it had been a few moments ago.
She might be a virgin, but she was also twenty-six years old. She’d been out among the lecherous men of the ton and been forced to discourage more than one overenthusiastic, often inebriated suitor with a knee to his jewels.
But none of those male organs had been as big as this, she was quite, quite sure.
I’m going to be ravished with something resembling a marble pillar! I must—
She must stop panicking and think. How could she free herself?
Perhaps if she stopped fighting, he would think she’d given up and let down his guard. That would be her opportunity to escape.
She willed her body to relax—and realized Lord Haywood wasn’t trying to force himself on her at all. Yes, he had her pinned to the ground, but he wasn’t moving. And while his mouth was covering hers, that was all it was doing. He wasn’t trying to kiss her. In fact, he was scowling!
When he saw he had her attention, his face started to perform an interesting series of contortions. He stared at her, waggled his brows, and then shifted his eyes left and then back to her and then left again. He must be trying to communicate something. What—
Oh. Now that her heart wasn’t pounding in her ears, she heard it, too—or, rather, heard them.
“This garden is a terrible tangle, Gertrude. Do watch your step. There is ivy everywhere.”
“Yes, indeed. Poor Miss Franklin—or Miss Frost, that is—certainly didn’t try to keep this up.”
“She’s the Duchess of Benton now.”
Miss Gertrude Boltwood snorted. “Yes. Fortunately she’ll have an army of gardeners on Benton’s estates to attend to things for her.”
Lord Haywood had freed her mouth. Now he lowered his head to whisper by her ear. Mmm. He smelled very nice. And his breath tickled.
“Just be quiet and lie still. I think we’re hidden.”
He thought they were hidden. He didn’t know.
Of course he didn’t know. The Boltwood sisters were only ten feet, if that, from them. They could turn at any moment and see them. Her blue dress didn’t exactly blend into foliage.
“What was that, Cordelia?”
Lud! Miss Gertrude had heard her. The Boltwood sisters would—
“Might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb,” Lord Haywood muttered and then his mouth came down on hers again just as Poppy brushed past them.
He wasn’t scowling this time and his lips weren’t still. They were firm, but gentle, as they brushed back and forth over her mouth.
This time he was kissing her.
He was far more adept at the matter than any of the other men she’d been kissed by. He didn’t slobber over her like an overfriendly dog or grind his mouth against hers so she feared for her lips and teeth. He didn’t make her feel as if she were the last pastry to be devoured, either.
He made her feel hot and breathless and reckless. Her heart thudded in her ears so loudly she barely heard the Boltwood sisters.
“What was what?” Cordelia asked.
“I thought I heard something in the bushes.”
There was a rustling sound as if the ladies were dancing in the ivy.
“Oh!” That was Cordelia again. She laughed. “It must have been the cat you heard, Gertrude.”
“I suppose so.” Gertrude sighed. “Well, there doesn’t seem to be anything to see back here, and I don’t wish to break my neck in this ivy.”
“No, indeed. Let’s go home and have a nice cup of tea, with some of that delightful French cream.”
The ladies were leaving. As soon as they were gone, Lord Haywood could stop kissing her.
Lord Haywood’s tongue slowly traced the seam of her lips and her thoughts scattered. His thumb stroked her cheek. Ahh—
Her jaw relaxed, and his wily tongue slipped into her mouth.
She forgot all about the Boltwood sisters.
She’d been kissed only once this way. Viscount Lufton had surprised her in the library at some interminable house party, backed her up against a bookcase, and shoved his tongue down her throat. She’d gagged and slammed her knee up between his legs.
She had no urge to do Lord Haywood violence.
His tongue slid over hers, exploring, teasing, inviting her to . . . do what? Something dark and exciting.
She threaded her fingers through his thick brown hair as she stroked her tongue tentatively over his. He made a low sound of encouragement, and his tongue moved more boldly. It was everywhere, filling her and then retreating. She followed it, crossing over into his mouth. His thumbs stroked her jaw.
Something dark and exciting was already happening. Her breasts ached to be free of her stays. Heat pooled low in her belly. No, even lower. Her most private place felt swollen and empty.
She’d always thought the procreative procedure sounded terribly embarrassing and uncomfortable, but she suddenly understood its attraction.
Lord Haywood had lifted his body to take his weight off her. He was only an inch above her, but it was too far. She arched her hips to press against the lovely long, hard bulge in his pantaloons.
It felt wonderful.
He must have thought so, too. His tongue thrust more urgently into her mouth while his hips began to pulse against her. Oh! His movements caused the, er, excitement to wind tighter and tighter.
She slid her fingers up under his coat and over his muscled arse.
Fiddle! She must have broken some rule. She dropped her hands immediately, hoping he’d get back to what he’d been doing.
He raised his head—which caused his hips to drop, pressing his, ah, protuberance between her legs in the most delightful spot. She closed her eyes, bit her lip, and rubbed against—
Nothing. With a muttered curse, he’d rolled off her as if she’d suddenly caught fire.
She had, but his withdrawal doused the flames. She sat up and pushed her hair out of her face. Somewhere along the line, she’d parted company with her hairpins.
“Did I do something wrong?”
“Wrong?” Lord Haywood leapt to his feet. “Wrong? Good God, woman, you’re sprawled on your back in the bushes; you had your hands on my arse and your tongue in my—” He pressed his lips together. “And you ask if you’ve done something wrong?!”
The lovely excitement she’d felt congealed into a hard, ugly lump of shame. Hot mortification rushed to her face.
“Your behavior would scandalize any proper young woman,” he said priggishly.
Who was he to tell her how to behave? He was the one who’d started the misbehavior. He’d dragged her into the garden, rolled her into the bushes, and then put his tongue where it didn’t belong.
She was so angry, she hissed.
No, that was Poppy. The cat darted out from under a bush and pounced on Lord Haywood’s right boot.
“Hey! What do you mean by that?” Lord Haywood reached down as if to grab Poppy by the scruff of her neck.
Poppy was having none of it. She swiped at his fingers, clawed his leather boots for good measure, and ran off.
Lord Haywood scowled after her. “Blo—blasted cat.”
At least he’s trying to mind his tongue—
She flushed. Best not to think about tongues.
“These are new boots.”
“I’m certain you can afford another pair.” Anne tried to get to her feet, but her skirts were twisted round her legs.
“Let me help you, Miss Davenport.” Lord Haywood reached for her, but she swatted his hand away.
“Don’t t-touch me.” She hoped he’d think her stutter was caused by fury and not a desperate attempt to swallow sudden tears. Dreadful skirts. Had they tied themselves in a knot? They seemed determined to keep her in her ignominious position on the ground.
She tried once more to get up but put a foot on the edge of her dress, sending her flopping gracelessly down again.
“Miss Davenport, please. Allow me to assist you.”
“No. I’d rather lie here in the dirt than have you touch me.”
“Oh, for God’s sake.”
Apparently Lord Haywood had reached the end of his patience. He grabbed her hands and pulled. He was very strong. She flew off the ground and fell heavily against him. His arms came round her to steady her.
He felt so good. . . .
But he thought her no better than a light-skirt.
She put her hands on his very hard chest and shoved.
He didn’t let her go.
She tilted her head back and addressed his strong jaw. “Lord Haywood, release me immediately.” She tried to snort derisively for added effect, but unfortunately the sound came out more like a sob.
Lord Haywood sighed and held her away from him, his hands on her shoulders. “Miss Davenport, I apologize. I should not have said what I did.”
“You should not have thought it.”
He sighed again and dropped his hands. “I didn’t really think it. I was merely . . .” He looked away. “I was, er, upset by the, ah, circumstances.”
“Circumstances you created.” Well, she should be truthful. “That is, I did trip and fall into you, but everything after that was all your doing.”
Perhaps not all his doing, but he’d certainly led the way.
“I was merely trying to keep us from being discovered by the Misses Boltwood, who I understand are the village gossips.”
Everyone in Loves Bridge gossiped, not that there was normally anything of interest to gossip about, but the Boltwoods did indeed take the art to new heights.
Hmm. There would be something to talk about if the Boltwoods found out Cat had been in the trysting bushes with the duke.
Or—good Lord!—if they discovered what she’d just been doing in the vegetation with the marquess.
“You won’t tell anyone about this, will you?” she asked anxiously.
His brows shot up in apparent shock and then slammed down. “Of course not. What do you take me for? The whole point of that”—he waved at the ground where they’d so recently been sprawled—“was to avoid detection.”
So evading the Boltwood sisters’ notice had been the only motivation for Lord Haywood’s actions.
For some reason, that infuriated her.
“Was it really necessary to k-kiss me then?” She felt herself flush once more. That had been rather more than a simple kiss.
He looked down his tonnish nose at her. “If you’ll remember, you were about to scream. That would have been disastrous. The Boltwoods would have discovered us at once.”
Yes, that would have been bad. However . . .
“If you’ll remember, I was only going to scream because you had your hands on my, er, derriere.” Yet apparently she wasn’t allowed to touch his precious arse. Typical. Men set the rules and women had to live by them.
Well, not this woman.
“I was forced to do so to hold you still, madam. You were about to put your knee on”—he glanced away, clearing his throat—“on a very sensitive part of my person.”
Oh. She flushed. She hadn’t realized—
Wait a moment. His male bit hadn’t been in any danger during their most recent activities. He’d been on top.
“I wasn’t about to scream or do you an injury when you stuck your t-tongue in my mouth.” Her face was going to break out in flames, she was so hot—with embarrassment, of course. “And you can’t blame the Boltwood sisters for that, either. They’d already departed.”
* * * * *
Nate looked at Miss Davenport. Her expression was an interesting mix of mortified and murderous. He felt—
Lust. That’s all I feel.
That wasn’t completely true, but he shied away from considering the question further.
“I am a man, Miss Davenport—”
“I noticed, Lord Haywood.”
The moment the words left her mouth, her face flushed bright red. She must be thinking, as he was, how exactly his, er, gender had made itself known.
His offending body part stirred again, eager to refresh her memory if she’d forgotten any detail.
Stop it. This reaction is inappropriate. Miss Davenport is a well-bred virgin. She’s not for you.
His cock didn’t agree.
“Men react to women physically, Miss Davenport. It’s a natural male instinct, something we can’t control.” Blasted cock.
Her lip curled. “So you’re saying you’re no better than an animal?”
“No, of course that’s not what I’m saying.” Well, perhaps that was what he’d said, but it wasn’t what he’d meant. “It’s merely that men’s bodies sometimes react in ways they don’t approve of.”
Zeus, he had the sinking feeling he was making this worse.
“Oh? Well I don’t approve of what just happened either, Lord Haywood. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll leave you and your natural male instinct”—she just about spat the words—“and this cursed garden and go home.” She turned, took a few steps—and tripped over the ivy again.
He lunged and caught her before she tumbled to the ground, but the moment she regained her balance, she shook him off.
“Don’t touch me,” she said, glaring at him.
She was furious—but she also sounded as if she was about to cry.
“Don’t be concerned, Miss Davenport. I’ll not so forget myself again.”
She limited herself to an expressive sniff and walked briskly—or as briskly as one could while minding one’s steps—away from him.
And now I’ve insulted her again.
He had the distinct impression that anything else he said would only make matters worse, so he held his tongue as he followed her toward the garden gate.
What the hell was the matter with him? He’d never accosted a gently bred woman in the foliage before. He’d never accosted a woman of any sort anywhere. He wasn’t subject to Isabelle Dorring’s curse.
Oh, God, the curse. Marcus and Miss Hutting in the bushes. He closed his eyes briefly. If Marcus had been doing what he’d just been doing . . .
Well, there was nothing he could do about that. He’d have a word with Marcus later, when he got back to the castle. Now he’d try to convince Miss Davenport not to spread the tale.
He glanced at her straight back and hard jaw.
Right. Good luck with that.
His gaze traveled lower, admiring her lovely arse—decorated with leaves and a few patches of dirt. And were those twigs in her hair? Where was her bonnet? He looked around. They were close to the spot where they’d fallen—
Ah, there! He picked the bonnet out of a bush and then knelt to see if he could find any hairpins. “Miss Davenport.”
“What is it?”
He looked over his shoulder. She was scowling at him, hands on her hips, but at least she’d stopped.
He waved her bonnet. “If you don’t wish to cause comment, you should put this back on.”
She stalked over to him and snatched the headgear from his hands.
“And fix your hair.”
“How am I going to fix my hair without any pins?”
“That’s what I’m looking for.” Ah, he was in luck. He found three. He stood and held them out to her. “Will this be enough?”
“It’s better than nothing.” She gathered her hair, twisted it up, and shoved the pins in. Then she jerked the bonnet on and tied the ribbon into a slap-dash bow. She turned to leave.
“Er, one more thing.”
She glared over her shoulder at him. “What?”
“You might wish to brush off your skirt. It’s acquired some vegetation and a spot or two of dirt.”
She glanced down at her dress. “It looks fine to me.”
“Yes, well, it’s the back of the dress that needs attention.”
She twisted and pulled at her skirt, swatting at it from the right and the left, but she wasn’t able to reach the problem area.
He watched her for a few minutes and then couldn’t restrain himself any longer. It was silly for her to struggle when he could fix the issue in a trice.
“Oh, very well.”
He stepped closer and brushed his hand over her skirt, knocking off leaves and twigs and trying valiantly not to think of the firm, nicely rounded bottom beneath the cloth.
Hmm. There was one stubborn spot that resisted his efforts. He leaned closer, plucking off three tenacious twigs, and then rubbed at some dirt. He couldn’t get it off.
He licked his fingers, placed his hand against Miss Davenport’s stomach to steady her, and attacked the last bit of—
“Just a moment, Miss Davenport. I’ve almost got it.”
He pressed a bit harder against her stomach . . . well, it was actually lower than her stomach. More the front of her hips, just above—
He froze. That is, his hands froze—one at the juncture of her thighs, the other spread across her arse. His cock was anything but frozen.
He snatched his hands away and laced his fingers in front of his bulging fall.
“I—” He cleared his throat, trying to dislodge the lust that was clogging it and making his voice huskier than normal. “I believe that will do.”
She didn’t look at him, but nodded and almost ran for the gate.
“Miss Davenport, you really don’t need to be afraid—”
That earned him another glare.
“I’m not afraid . . . of anything.”
He opened the gate, and she walked briskly through and around to the front of the Spinster House—bringing the vicarage shrubbery back into view.
Is Marcus still there?
Surely not. And if he was, there was nothing Nate could do about it. He wasn’t about to barge into any more bushes. But he could have that word with Miss Davenport.
If she would let him. She was already a distance away, moving determinedly down the walk toward Cupid’s Inn. He hurried to catch her.
“You can stop following me, Lord Haywood,” she said over her shoulder, not even glancing at him. “There’s no longer any danger the ivy will trip me.”
He lengthened his stride to step up beside her. “Then let me walk with you, Miss Davenport. Here, take my arm.”
She drew back, nostrils flaring. One would think he’d offered her a piece of rotting, maggot-infested meat.
“No, thank you.”
“I only wished to be polite.” Perhaps his tone had been a bit testy. He tried to soften it with a small bow.
She bared her teeth at him in what, at a distance, might be taken for a smile. “Well, there you go. You’ve been polite. You are absolved of any sin against the gods of etiquette.” She turned away and continued down the walk.
He continued next to her.
“I don’t need your escort, Lord Haywood,” she hissed at him. “This isn’t London. I can walk alone without causing comment, so you can be about your business.”
“That’s what I’m doing, madam.”
He thought for a moment she would slap him. “I am not your business.”
“Thank God for that. I will tell you—” No, it was beneath him to brangle with the woman. “I intend to return to Loves Castle, madam. To do so, I need to retrieve my horse, which I left at the inn.” Next to Marcus’s, so in a few moments he’d know for certain if his cousin was still frolicking in the foliage.
“Oh.” She flushed. “I see. I, er, left my gig there as well.”
“Then it would appear we have the same destination.” He offered his arm again.
This time, she took it, albeit grudgingly. “It will look odd if the Misses Boltwood see us together.”
“It will look odder still if we continue in the same direction and you continue to act as if I’m a complete bounder.”
Her only response was an eloquent sniff.
Confound it, he wasn’t a bounder. What had happened in the Spinster House garden had simply been a series of bizarre accidents.
He slanted a glance at Miss Davenport. Her poor bonnet was rather bedraggled from its journey through the leafage and her dress might still have a bit of mud and a small grass stain or two, but she held herself erect—rather as if she had a poker up her back, actually.
She hadn’t been so stiff when they’d been rolling around in the vegetation. No, she’d been soft and warm, and her mouth had—
Stop it! Thinking about their interlude made a certain part of him far too stiff and got him nowhere. He had more important things to consider, such as how to persuade Miss Davenport to hold her tongue—
No. No tongues.
That is, how to persuade the woman not to spread tales about Marcus and Miss Hutting.
“I did wish to have a word with you, Miss Davenport, before we got distracted by the cat—”
“Poppy. The cat’s name is Poppy.”
This was not promising. Miss Davenport wouldn’t look at him, and her voice was rather hard. Why the hell did she care what he called the animal?
He took a deep breath. It didn’t matter.
“Yes. When Poppy distracted me, and then the Misses Boltwood approached—”
“And you dragged me into the garden and attacked me.”
“I did not attack you. I may have—due to unusual circumstances—taken some mild liberties—”
That earned him a quick, murderous look.
“Mild?! You had your tongue in my mouth, sirrah!”
Impertinent woman. “And you had yours in mine.”
Oh, hell, he shouldn’t have said that. Miss Davenport’s entire face turned bright red. He looked around.
Damnation. A stout, bespectacled woman was observing them from across the green. He nodded at her. With luck, she was too far away to hear them or to see Miss Davenport’s suddenly heightened color.
“You mustn’t say such things,” Miss Davenport muttered in a strangled voice.
Here was his opportunity. “Yes, it would be quite uncomfortable if word of your actions got out, wouldn’t it?”
She glared at him, but she looked a bit apprehensive as well. “You said you wouldn’t tell anyone about”—she glanced back toward the Spinster House—“about what, er, happened.”
“And I won’t. Just as I hope you won’t say anything about the duke and Miss Hutting disappearing into the vegetation.”
“Oh.” She looked away. “Of course. Why would I say anything about them?”
Strangely, Nate did not feel reassured.
Copyright © 2016 by Sally MacKenzie