My Dashing Duke – Tammy Andresen, Annabelle Anders

Dash blinked several times, attempting to clear his vision, as he stared out the large, square window at the front of the tiny inn. Before him lay a sea of white snow. In fact, the offending precipitation had piled so high he wasn’t certain if all the liquor had blinded him, turning his eyesight white, or if there actually was that much powder piled on the ground. At this rate, they’d be stuck in this haven of wholesomeness until spring. He slowly and methodically refocused his gaze on the fire crackling merrily in the hearth as a way to test his eyes. Snorting, he took another long swig of his ale. Only, the fire was not merry at all. That must be his imagination playing tricks on him. Clearly, he’d allowed this quaint little village to poison his normally debaucherous mind. It was nearly Christmastide, not that he gave a wit about the holiday. But he and his companions had been on their way to a lovely little affair being put on by a very eligible widow who’d been married to a man five and twenty years her senior. Finding herself suddenly free of attachment, she’d invited Dash, along with a few of his friends, to celebrate the holiday. Jack had already fallen asleep sitting at the table, his face resting on his plate. Nick was still awake, but barely. Their carriage, unable to continue the journey, had stopped here to wait out the storm.

The men had amended to drink themselves into a stupor to pass the time until they could continue on their journey. Nick’s head slumped forward, falling on the table with a decided thump. Dash chuckled and pushed Nick’s shoulder. “You’re a marquess for Christ’s sake, you should be able to hold your liquor better than that.” Nick mumbled an incoherent response and then let out a decided snore, making Dash chuckle and he poked his friend again. He missed the man’s shoulder, his finger landing in Nick’s ear. The man didn’t stir. Clutching at his stomach, Dash laughed all the more and then grabbed a slice of bread from his near-empty plate of meat pie and beans, pulling a crust off and tossing it at Jack. While he’d been aiming for Jack’s mouth, the bread lodged firmly in the man’s hair. The sight was so hilarious, a fit of laughter overtook Dash again, and he snorted, tears leaking from his eyes as he pounded the table with his fist.

Then he sobered, attempting to sit up straighter. He only ever giggled like this when he was ape-faced drunk. Which was a distinct possibility. Focusing all his concentration on the task, he pushed back from the table, his chair scraping the floor. He started to stand but wobbled and held the edge tighter in search of his balance. Head spinning in a sickening manner, he puffed out his cheeks when bile rose in his throat. Bloody bullocks, he really had done a fine job of getting pissed. Inching up from his semi crouched position, he managed to stand, the room turning about in the strangest way. Fresh air. That’s what he needed.

“I’m going outside, boys,” he called to his sleeping friends, pointing his finger toward the window. Unfortunately, he’d chosen the wrong hand and rather pointed to the stairs that surely led to his room. For a moment he considered that plan instead. Head up the stairs and collapse into his bed. Dash scratched his head and then felt in his pocket for a key. What room was he in anyhow? What floor? He scrubbed his face. Perhaps getting drunk hadn’t been the best plan after all. Nothing to do for it now but take a walk in the fresh, cold winter air and clear his muddled head. That widow who waited at the end of their trip was a buxom sort with lots of supple curves. Some might say she ran a bit heavy but a man needed that sort of warmth in this kind of weather.

He wished he’d arrived at his destination and was in that bed right now rather than here. In fact, he might rather be anywhere else. With a loud sigh, he shuffled across the floor and as he opened the door he was forced to grip the handle for dear life. The blast of cold air did clear his thoughts a bit and so he stepped out into the cool night inhaling deeply. His Hessians came up near to his knees but as he stepped into a drift of snow the damn fluffy stuff came up over the tops, making his knees wet and packing down on the insides of his boots. Dash bent over to try and clear them out. Even in his drunken state the snow bit at his bare skin. He jerked them back, tucking them close to his body. Unfortunately, the sudden movement threw off his already precarious balance and as he straightened, his arms flailed wildly in the air. For all his effort, he spun about, putting more of his weight upon one leg and then the other, before toppling over, and landing in a giant pile of snow.

“Bloody hell,” he yelled as the cold, white crusts of hell smashed under his jacket, down his breeches and melted in his boots. His arms lay out by his sides, his feet wide apart as though he’d lain down to create a snow angel. When he lifted his head to sit up, a wave of dizziness crashed over him like he’d never experienced in his life. Resigned now, he grimaced at the inky black sky, snow falling into his eyes and mouth. He was going to die in the snow, in a sleepy little village a week before Christmastide. Couldn’t he have been shot in a duel? Or better still, perished in some woman’s bed? This…this was below his station and utterly ridiculous. * * * Noelle nibbled at the gingerbread she’d saved from dinner and stared out into the dark night and watched the swirling snow. She hadn’t been able to fall asleep again and had donned her coat and scarf to sit at the window thinking. If only thinking brought her the answers she sought. She raised the spicy bread to her lips for another bite and closed her eyes so that she didn’t miss a single flavor.

It was her favorite and despite everything else that was wrong in her life just then, she would enjoy every mouthwatering bite. It’s what her mother would have wanted her to do. Her mother would have told her to be grateful that she had a warm bed to sleep in along with delicious and filling food in her belly when others lived in lack. And Noelle was grateful for all she was provided. But she missed her life before—before her mother died, before her father had fallen into despair and given up on all of them. Noelle swallowed the bite of her cookie that had suddenly lodged in her throat. Because in that moment, although they were just a few feet away, each in their own chambers, Noelle missed her sisters too. Perhaps most of all, she longed to laugh with them, argue with them, listen to them tease one another and all the other things they’d done when their mother had been alive. Be grateful. She glanced dispassionately around the chamber Aunt Winifred had made available for her.

The bedding was lovely, the furnishings were of a deep rich mahogany, the drapes of a beautiful silk, and yet vivid in her mind was the bedchamber she’d left behind. She hadn’t slept through the night once since their father had sent them away. Her breath fogged the window and for the hundredth time, she rubbed it away with her mittened fist. This too shall pass, she reminded herself as she blinked away tears. Her aunt was a little batty, but she had kind eyes and seemed to want to do what was best for all of them. Feelings of homesickness would fade. They always did. Noelle simply needed to find a way to get her sisters back to normal. The snow really was pretty. Her mother would have loved a night such as this.

This storm had moved in only a few hours ago and already had accumulated enough that it was impossible to identify where her aunt’s lawn ended and the road began. Having been raised in the country, Noelle found it somewhat of a novelty to live in the center of town, even if her aunt’s house was old and outrageously large and somewhat of a curiosity. She popped the last sweet bite past her lips and peered outside again. She would hardly recognize the town square beneath all this snow if not for the statue erected in the center. It was supposedly made in the likeness of one of the town’s founders, hundreds of years before. And then she blinked and tilted her head. The statue was… Moving? She sat up straight and rubbed at the window again. It wasn’t a statue at all, but a man. Oh dear. Midnight was long past and it was likely already two or three in the morning.

What on earth would any sane person be doing outside on a bitter night like tonight? Was he mad? Noelle narrowed her eyes and focused on the shadowy image as he stumbled and then seemed to sway in the wind. Perhaps he was ill. Two steps forward and then backward and then…he continued backward until he fell to the ground and disappeared into the snow. “Get up,” she urged in a whisper, feeling an inkling of alarm. Was he dead? Why didn’t he raise himself out of the snow? Nothing. Just the sound of the wind against the window rattling the brittle panes and her own breathing. “Get up,” she urged, louder this time as though he might hear her from inside the house and across the square. Still. Nothing. Panic rising, Noelle located her boots and pulled them on over her thick woolen socks before rushing back to the window.

She still didn’t see him. Had he risen and left or was he yet laying in the snow? Buried alive? He might never get up if he stayed out there much longer. Noelle didn’t allow herself to reconsider her actions as she tiptoed out of her room and down the front stairs. She was almost surprised to find her aunt’s butler absent from the door. Of course, Mr. Clark was in bed. Of course, he was asleep. Normal people slept at this time. Drawing in a deep breath to fortify her courage, she decided she would help check on him herself. If she couldn’t rouse him, then she’d wake the household up.

Finding a dead man in the town center, Noelle supposed, would likely be the sort of event for which a lady might wish to wake a few people. She unlocked the door and opened it and when the wind blew inside, the cold sent a shiver traveling through her small frame. Undeterred, she clutched the scarf around her head and ducked outside into the dark, wretched storm. Oh, but the snow was deep, and cold, and wet. Curling her spine against the wind, Noelle kept her head down and barreled headlong in the direction she’d thought she’d seen him fall. What if she couldn’t find him? What if he was a murderer and this was all just a ruse to lure an innocent girl like herself out of her bed chamber and into his clutches? She did her best to dismiss such pessimistic thoughts and glanced up to get her bearings, half hoping she would see him and half hoping he’d already made his way back to wherever he’d come from, inside where it was safe and dry. Both parts of her were to be rewarded, or disappointed, depending on how she cared to think about it, when she caught sight of the dark figure on the ground just a few steps away. Ploughing her way through the snow, she dropped to her knees at his side purposely ignoring the cold now seeping through her coat and night rail. A man’s life was at stake, for goodness sake! “Sir!” She leaned forward to get a better look at him. Even in her panic, in the middle of a blizzard, she couldn’t help but notice that he had beautiful, thick, dark lashes.

So thick that they’d captured a few sparkling snowflakes and appeared almost magical against the pale skin just above strong cheekbones. “Sir! Wake up!” And then her gaze settled on his mouth. Framed with dark stubble above his upper lip and jaw, his lips looked soft but also firm. The word “kissable” flitted through her brain. She shook her head. Men’s lips weren’t kissable! Were they? “Oh please, wake up! Don’t be dead!” Not wanting to wake the entire village, she realized she was whispering. She didn’t wish to be too loud. It would be dreadfully embarrassing and scandalous if anyone discovered her outside by herself like this. She removed her gloves and slapped his face a few times as an alternative. He was far too handsome to be dead.

“Please!” Her fingers inadvertently threaded themselves through silky, thick, black hair. “You must wake up.” Her fingers continued combing through his hair—strictly to remove the snow, that was. And then his chest began shaking and she jumped guiltily. Which was ridiculous. She was saving him, for heaven’s sake! “Are you cold?” He must be. But when that kissable mouth of his stretched into a wide smile, a dreadful feeling rolled through her. He smelled of an all-too-familiar aroma, one she easily recognized as she’d caught the scent on her father’s breath often enough. This blighter was foxed! And he wasn’t shaking from cold, he was shaking with laughter now. Those annoyingly gorgeous lashes of his fluttered and opened to gaze at her sleepily.

“Are you an angel, love? Because if you are, I should have died years ago.” Hooded and drunken eyes gazed at her as he reached up to touch her face. Noelle brushed it away and shook him. “You have to get up, sir. You can’t stay out here in the cold all night.” “Come down here and join me. We can keep one another warm.” His voice sounded low and inviting, sending a deep rumble of delicious sin vibrating through her, despite the freezing snow. Good Gravy. Jug bitten for certain! “You must get up!” Noelle took hold of his shoulders and made a valiant attempt at pulling him into a sitting position.

If his arms hadn’t wound about her, she might even have succeeded. Instead she found herself laying atop the bounder. “Kiss me first. Kiss me and then I’ll do anything you want.” He was still staring at her from beneath those damned lashes of his. His body felt warm beneath her despite the wind and snow howling around them. “Oh, but please?” Noelle pushed herself up so that her face wasn’t quite so very close to his. And then her gaze dropped to his lips for an instant. “I really don’t want you to die out here.” “One kiss.

” Those lips of his nearly had her mesmerized. They were so supple and full, curved into the slightest grin. Perhaps it was due to the late hour. Maybe, it was the hopelessness she’d felt for months now. Or possibly it was simply the fact that her toes were quickly turning into ice but whatever the reason, she was willing to negotiate if it meant getting both of them out of the snow and by a fire. “You will come with me. If I kiss you?”

.

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