God save Margaret Claire Dorrill from the diligent care of her older brother—by all of eleven years. Not that he treated her cruelly, or ever neglected her. Rather the opposite, in fact; loving, protective…organizing. Controlling. Overbearing. “I’ll land you a proper husband if it’s the last damn thing I do.” Ethan Dorrill executed his guardianship far too seriously. Good Heavens! Claire was only weeks from arriving at the ripened age of one and twenty. She was a woman in her own right! She wished Ethan would focus his energies on his own marital state. Relax his overblown sense of responsibility to her for just a moment. Or a month. Perhaps a decade. “And by proper husband, you mean a titled gentleman?” she needled him. Ethan slid her a frustrated look and rubbed the back of his neck at the same time. “You deserve such respect—” “I’m afforded enough respect.
” Claire exhaled loudly, blowing the hair up from her forehead. “I’d prefer to ‘land’ my own husband, thank you very much. How would you feel if I had deigned to choose your wife?” He sent her a stern glance. Having recently found happiness with his wife, Georgiana, Claire would have thought he’d have been more understanding. He ought to expect that she, too, would want, at the very least, to like the man she chose to marry. She and Ethan laid claim to the most common of births. Although her dear brother’s success in business had given them rise financially, nothing could change the circumstances of their birth. Even Ethan’s marriage to Georgiana could never make her brother anything more than a ‘Mister.’ Their parents had been of the merchant class, as had their grandparents before them. Claire accepted this fact gracefully.
Ethan did not; at least, not for her. Nonetheless, he provided his wife with not only security, but vast wealth. “I’m sorry about Lord Pringle.” Ethan scrubbed one hand over his face as he apologized for the titled gentleman he’d invited to their townhouse. He’d done so in hopes of a respectable offer for Claire—an offer which would have made Claire a Lady. If Claire had been willing to marry an ass. The truth of the matter was, she had no desire to lay claim to a title. “I’m not…sorry, that is.” She hated the fact that the pompous young man had managed to prick her pride. She’d given him the benefit of the doubt and then been horrifically disappointed.
“It had nothing to do with you,” her brother admitted. He’d simply been unwise to issue the invitation to begin with. “I’ve no wish to remain in London now.” The Season was all but over. She would play upon her brother’s guilt. “Amy Fairchild is hosting a house party and has invited me. I’ve already accepted her invitation.” Amy and Claire had been bosom buddies for most of their lives. Claire tilted her chin up in defiance before Ethan could respond. The Fairchilds were as far from the nobility as she and Ethan were.
There would be no dukes, no earls, not even a lowly baron at such an event. Normal people, rather. Her friend even welcomed Claire’s small dog, Elmer. Who currently lay sprawled on the decorative rug at Ethan’s feet. Her brother pretended to barely tolerate the short-legged canine, but Claire knew better. On more than one occasion, she’d caught him sneaking Elmer treats beneath the table. Her brother, although more controlling than she’d wish, was a good man. A decent, hardworking man. But for now, she’d have her way. “You know I don’t approve of that woman.
” Ethan’s mouth pinched into a hard line. Except Claire knew he would relent, since he believed Lord Pringle had broken her heart. Ethan owes me. Claire tilted her chin up even higher. “I already sent her a letter promising I’d travel tomorrow.” Which was why Claire now found herself sitting on the side of a road, in the sun, alone with her maid and Elmer, miles from anywhere on this late summer afternoon. The three of them had been rolling along, windows open to allow the warm breeze to flow through and then kathump. The carriage had listed to the left, lurched heavily, and then jolted to a stop. Coachman John had been beside himself with what to do. “I can’t leave two women alone on the road.
” He’d blustered his consternation for all of fifteen minutes before accepting Claire’s reassurances that she, Elmer, and Dolores could wait the hour or so it would take him to reach help without being in any real danger. She reminded him of the right hook Dolores could dole out, if necessary. The burly driver had found himself on the receiving end of her maid’s fists on one unfortunate occasion when Dolores popped him a good one for getting ‘fresh’ with her. The supposed insult had never been repeated but had left John with one blackened eye. The outrider who normally traveled with them had been called home due to an untimely death and a temporary replacement was yet to be found. With a convincing bark from Elmer, the driver reluctantly relented and marched away to track down either another wheel or a replacement conveyance. Although John had no qualms about driving cattle, he never rode them. Ever. He’d been gone less than ten minutes when Dolores began expelling a series of heavy, sorrowful sighs. Claire glanced sideways at the heavyset older woman and tried not to smirk.
Grandfather Thomas had hired Dolores to act as lady’s maid when Claire turned sixteen. Four years they’d been together now, and so Claire knew what was to come next. “It certainly is hot, Miss Claire. Don’t remember it being this hot last year.” Dolores did not disappoint. She uttered the words and wiggled uncomfortably on the fallen log both women sat upon. Claire held tightly to Elmer as the trunk shifted on the uneven earth. “It is a warm day, Dolores.” Claire set Elmer on the ground and removed her fichu, which she then waved in front of her face. “I suppose the heat is better than rain, Miss Claire.
Mud would be quite unpleasant, indeed.” “It certainly would be, Dolores.” Claire allowed a teasing grin to dance upon her lips. She’d had many such conversations with her maid over the years. “Just a few clouds in the distance. Don’t suppose they’ll amount to anything though.” Dolores sighed heavily again. “I don’t suppose.” “And if they did, then there would be all the mud…” Her poor maid would never decide which might be the greater weather travesty to besiege them. Elmer perked up watchfully at the clop of an approaching rider from the opposite direction John had disappeared.
It seemed she was to be spared her maid’s titillating conversation after all. Claire was aware she ought to be wary. As two women on the side of the road, their present circumstance could almost be considered scandalous, and some might argue, fraught with danger. She clutched her reticule in one hand and sat up straight, pushing her shoulders back. The majestic horse carried a gentleman, of course. Even several yards away, Claire noticed his impeccable dress. If the black top hat and magnificent horse weren’t enough for Claire to peg him as titled, his regal bearing would have been. As he drew closer, Claire studied him unabashedly: Aquiline nose, chiseled jawline, and barely perceptible from beneath his hat, blond hair that curled over his collar. None of which mattered the moment she met his gaze. Blue flames.
The color reminded her of the hottest of flames hidden in the depths of a fire. She’d never seen eyes so brilliant and intense. Despite the summer sun, a tingling shimmied the length of her spine. “Ah hem.” The sound of Dolores clearing her throat jolted Claire to her feet. Elmer followed suit, tail wagging in excitement. He certainly lacked the makings of a vicious guard dog. As Elmer danced about in excitement, Claire wondered if this stranger was somebody important. He was certainly no gentleman she’d ever met before. She would not have forgotten such a man.
Finely attired, he sat atop his mount prominently displaying his broad shoulders and slim waist. Just as Claire’s eyes dropped to study the rider’s well-muscled thighs, he drew his mount to a halt and leapt to the ground in one fluid motion. “It appears you’ve met with some difficulties, miss.” He shifted his eyes toward the broken traveling carriage and then to Elmer. He frowned before swinging that compelling gaze of his back to Claire. “I imagine your coachman has gone for assistance?” Something about this man slowed her brain to a snail’s pace. As his low-timbered voice set butterflies alight within her belly, her gaze reluctantly shifted to the traveling coach with a sigh. Ethan had purchased it just a few months ago. He would be more than a little annoyed by such shoddy workmanship. When she regarded the rider again, she caught him watching her with one impertinently cocked eyebrow.
Claire shook her head to dismiss the thoughts he evoked. She honestly did not think she’d ever laid eyes on a man so handsome as this elegant stranger. He would not be a baron, or even an earl. He must be a prince or a king, so exceptional were his looks and charisma. Giving momentary rein to her frivolous thoughts, she stared at him from beneath her eyelashes. How could his mouth appear so firm and yet his lips look soft and kissable at the same time? The heat had obviously turned her into a simpering ninny. Perhaps he would attribute the flush in her cheeks to the sun. “Miss?” his gravelly voice broke into her musings at the same time Dolores elbowed her in the ribs. “Er…” What had he asked her? “Your coachman?” he prompted. “Ah, yes… Coachman John.
Gone for assistance…” Claire clasped her hands together tightly. “The, er, wheel broke.” In that moment, she struggled to string together a coherent sentence. “I’ll admit I’m surprised to stumble upon two fine ladies left to fend for themselves.” His expression sobered at these words. Dolores snorted. Claire ought to assess this stranger with at least a modicum of suspicion. Normally, she would have kept herself guarded. But there was something inherently…trustable…about him. He seemed dependable and capable and yet he lacked the pomposity of other titled gentlemen.
He did not come across as insensitive or self-important like the men Ethan had recently paraded through their home. “Our outrider is indisposed, my lord.” At her admission, he blinked those blue eyes of his, seemed to come to some sort of decision, and then bowing, removed his hat. “My apologies, madam. Allow me to introduce myself.” As he bent low, Claire could not keep herself from admiring his wavy, thick blond hair, or the sinewy muscles visible on the back of his neck. “Baron…er…of Jester, at your service.” He glanced around the perimeter, taking further notice of their predicament and then absentmindedly fidgeted with one of the buttons on his coat. “In all conscience, I cannot abandon the two of you to your own devices until I know your coachman has returned and your safety is assured.” Most honorable, indeed.
“I’d not have you go against your conscience, my lord,” Claire spoke softly, feeling unusually girlish beside his masculine stature. And then she resorted to doing something she’d never done before. She fluttered her eyelashes. “I’m grateful to you if you’re inclined to delay your journey on our behalf.” Flashing a warning look in Dolores’s direction, she added, “I am Miss Claire Dubois”—she told him her mother’s name —“and this is my companion, Miss Dolores Finke.” He was a baron. Most barons of which she had an acquaintance—most notably—had pockets to let. She did not want this gentleman to see her merely as a means to bolster his estate. These Lords all knew her brother’s name. Most were well apprised as to the size of her dowry, which was considerable.
Was there any harm in participating in an hour or so of meaningless flirtation? With someone who didn’t gaze adoringly into her eyes because he saw her as the answer to all of his financial woes. Dolores scowled but Claire ignored her. “My day has brightened indeed.” His words ought to sound ridiculous. But they did not. Not ridiculous, at all. Claire licked her lips. What a fine afternoon it was turning out to be.