The Spinster and the Rake – Eva Devon

Edward Andrew Richard Stanhope, sixteenth Duke of Thornfield, always did the right thing, even if doing so wasn’t easy. So, when one of his guests, a young lady whose name he could not recall, tilted off her sidesaddle and plummeted straight for the ditch along the field, Edward urged his stallion forward and leaped to catch her before she would break her neck. Alas, she slipped through his gloved hands and gravity took its course upon the pair of them. They landed in the mire of an extremely deep and questionable puddle. A general cry of alarm and consternation arose from the mounted onlookers. Great murmurs of concern filled the air, but not a single lord or lady jumped into the fray. No, they observed in genteel horror as Edward and the young lady wallowed in the mud. They were all, save he, apparently above such chivalrous rescue. Very practical, if not gallant, of them, he had to admit. Unable to find purchase, Edward was forced to grab hold of her lest they slip about for eternity. Or at least until his man assisted them. Once safely in his hold, the chit stared up at him with great brown eyes, which happened to match the mud and wet hair streaking down her pale cheeks. “Are you all right?” he asked urgently. “Have you hurt yourself?” “No.” Her voice was light and feathery, and she batted her long blond lashes up at him.

“Oh, your Grace, you have saved me.” Edward stared down at her, attempting to make sense of her expression. Whatever did she mean? He reconsidered her words and the batting of her lashes. Batting lashes meant flirtation. He’d made note of it before and remembered well. Women batted their lashes at him when they wanted his attention—or rather, the attention of an unmarried duke. Comprehension dawned. Edward longed to groan at the young lady’s audacity. He refrained. Inwardly, he allowed himself to rail at the antics of determined debutants.

He wasn’t generally given to assuming someone was a bad sort. No, he liked to believe that generally people were not manipulative. But from the way she was looking at him and from the way her hands drew suddenly about his neck, clinging as if she’d never let go, Edward had the rather serious impression she hoped to be the next Duchess of Thornfield. In fact, she was holding on to him so tightly, he wondered if she believed possession was ninetenths of the law. As though she felt, if she could simply keep a hold of him, she would assume the title. She was mistaken, of course. He had no intention of marrying flibbertigibbets who could not sit their saddle. And now he doubted she had been unseated at all. He again stared down at what he assumed many would call a beautiful face. But good looks didn’t make one a good duchess by default.

“I’m glad you are well.” With his soppy, gloved hands, he attempted to unwind her grip from its prize. Namely, himself. “Please release me so I can get us out of this dank hole.” “Oh, Your Grace, of course!” She unlocked her taut embrace but then proceeded to bring a fluttering hand to her brow. Her eyelids fluttered as well. There was far too much fluttering going on for his liking. “But I find I am most dizzy,” she whispered dramatically. He scowled then immediately smoothed his expression, fighting a surprising dose of irritation. He did not usually suffer the vapors, pretend or otherwise.

“I will help you out of the ditch, and that is far enough.” “But could you not carry me to the castle?” she insisted, her voice still holding that breathy note that completely mystified him. And now, amidst the dales he loved so well, sitting in several inches of good Yorkshire rain water, he was cold. His breeches were wet. His coat was drenched. And to add insult to injury, he was covered in mud, as was she. They were both a right mess; he supposed he should offer further assistance. But that didn’t mean he had to be the one to carry it out. A good north wind whipped down the dale, rustling his guests exceptionally clean riding clothes and exacerbating Edward’s chill. “I will ask my man to take you back to the house.

” He gritted his teeth, willing himself not to say anything he might regret or that might support his reputation for being a cold sod. It had taken a great deal of training over the years not to blurt out the thoughts in his head as they came to him. Presently, she was putting all that training to the test. “I’m certain he will find your mother to take care of you.” “Oh, but Your Grace. You are my hero and you must allow me to thank you properly.” The young lady leaned forward and had the rather shocking temerity to touch his arm. “Come with me.” Edward eyed that hand upon his forearm. He did not like to be touched by strangers without his wish or approval, even lightly.

He arched a brow, then before he could stop himself, he said matterof-factly, “You look like a drowned rat.” A squeak of dismay exited her Cupid’s bow lips. She was clearly not used to being told the obvious truth. He hoped someone would explain to her that one did not throw themselves into ditches so dukes would go after them. He had helped, of course, because he really wasn’t the cold sod everyone thought him to be, but such a charade was not the way to matrimony. At least not with him. Edward helped her to stand, her riding habit all but pouring water down its heavy skirts. Delicately, he guided her toward his footman, Hobbs. “Take the young lady back to the house. Make certain she is dried out and that her family is found.

” She let out several sounds of protest, but Edward ignored them all, stepping away to grab his stallion’s reins that he’d had to abandon to rescue her. Rescue, indeed. Such machinations were unfortunately common. It was the life of a duke. People would stuff handkerchiefs down his coat, fall into ditches, and corner him in rooms. Who knew what they’d think up next? As he stepped forward, he felt an alarming draft and winced. Bloody hell. His breeches were torn in a most indiscreet place. Edward held the long tails of his riding coat about his legs, or else half the county would see his nether regions. Escape.

He needed to escape. Quickly, he swung back up onto his stallion and charged off in the direction of the stables, leaving the riding party without a word. He really had no desire to continue on in this particular vein, regardless, not after such a moment. And soon everyone would be gathering for the ball—he would need to clean and change. Relieved to be alone, Edward galloped back to the stable block where he knew he’d find a spare set of clothes, though none would fit him. He was far larger than all the stable lads, but this would have to do until he could get upstairs and properly change. But he also wanted dry breeches so he could avoid everyone, servants included, and find a moment’s solitude in his private library. He needed his special chair. It would help calm the tension throughout his body. And he required that calm, if he was to face the evening ahead.

Edward left his stallion with a groomsman, headed for the tack room, and grabbed a pair of dubious breeches. He yanked off his drenched ones and quickly pulled the coarse wool into place. They were ill-fitting and dried mud showed in a few spots, but they would suffice. As he stared down at the state of his dress, he sighed. Perhaps “rescuing” her had been the right thing to do in more ways than one. It gave him a legitimate excuse to spend some time alone and gather himself. Edward trotted up the limestone servants’ stairs of Thornfield Castle. Captain, his great wiry wolfhound, spotted him and raced out to meet him, tail wagging. “There’s my good boy.” Edward gave him a strong pat on the head, feeling a good dose of ease from the dog’s presence.

Not complete relaxation, but a start. The dog kept pace with him as they dashed down the narrow back hall. He picked up his stride, determined to avoid being stopped as he headed along the winding route to his private library. It was a sanctuary, his and his alone. He’d created it in such a way that he could collect himself when the presence of others simply became too much, threatening the facade of control he’d kept in place since childhood. It didn’t matter that he was one of the most powerful men in the land; he still internally shook at the necessity of being near or in a crowd, and tonight there was more than a crowd. There was a virtual horde of debutantes his aunt had invited to trot out before him with the intention of marriage. He’d survive the wildness that so much noise and movement would evoke within him, but first, he would take a moment and sit in the chair he’d had specially designed. It’s narrow, winged, high back, facing into a corner, allowed him to close off the rest of the world, the buzzing murmur of it all, because bloody hell, it did buzz when one was a duke. Edward made the last turn along the dark hallway and flexed and unflexed his hands.

His blood pulsed through him like a parade drum beat. Somehow, he needed to tell Aunt Agatha to cease. But she was determined to see him wed for all the usual reasons. An heir, of course. After all, the Dukes of Thornfield had been around for almost a thousand years. But more so, the old gel seemed worried he’d be stuck alone and miserable. Alone sounded like perfection. Finally, he reached the small, secret door to his library, pushed it open, and drew in a deep breath as the flames flickering in the fireplace warmed his chilled body. A long sigh of relief escaped his lips. Captain trotted in behind him, looking for his green cushion near the blazing hearth.

Edward pushed the door mostly closed behind him, keeping it open just a crack in case Captain needed to make a quick retreat. Edward pulled off his drenched and mud-caked coat. He let it thump to the floor, a wet, dirtencased mass. Methodically, he tugged at his cravat, unwinding it, drawing in the oaky scent of woodsmoke into his lungs. With each step he took into his sacred space, he felt all the tension unwinding. Yes, this was exactly what he needed. He opened up the throat of his linen shirt, allowing himself to catch a long breath before he held his hands out to the fire. His body was saturated with the cold of the Yorkshire Moors. He loved his lands, though. They begged for him to go out riding, and if he could, he would have ridden all day, for he preferred to be in action, to be at one with nature and the wild.

But when he could not, his library was his other favorite place. Slowly, trying to calm his racing thoughts, he headed for the grog table, ready to get a snifter of brandy. He picked up the cool decanter, loving the sound of the gentle clink of the crystal and the feel of the engraved pattern beneath his fingers as he poured out the smooth amber liquid. He lifted it, palmed it, and savored the simple thing he loved. For brandy, unlike people, was not full of ambiguity. Just as he took a sip, the sound of leather creaking punctured his reverie. He tensed. He turned. And eyed his chair. It couldn’t be.

It wasn’t possible. This room was off limits. Everyone knew this. And yet… He took a step forward. Captain’s ears cocked up, sensing something was amiss, and then jumped up and trotted around to the front of the chair. The dog plunked his behind on the floor with a giant thud and his tail immediately began wagging. A shockingly enthusiastic and definite Yorkshire voice said, “Well, hello there, my lovely lad.” Lovely lad? He thunked his snifter down and strode round to the side of the chair. “Who the blazes are you?” he roared, then stopped short, met with the most shocking pair of blue eyes he’d ever seen. There was a depth and crystal sharpness to them that nearly stole his breath away.

She gazed up at him as if she’d been caught in a trap, but she wasn’t the sort of creature to look frightened. Oh, no, after a moment of assessing, he was certain she was the sort who looked defiant. Edward was gobsmacked. When given his stare, most became immediately contrite. “It’s none of your business who I am,” she replied tartly, and eyed him up and down, her hands clasping one of his favorite books, Pamela. None of his business? “What are you doing in this chair?” he demanded. “I’m sitting,” she said. “Have you no eyes?” “Indeed, I have eyes,” he growled, tempted to pick her up and deposit her somewhere, anywhere, but in his library. “I see you sitting in the chair.” “Well done,” she said, with a pert nod.

“You are capable of seeing. Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like to be left alone. You may go.” He gaped down at her, wondering when the devil someone had ever spoken to him like that before. Never. That was when. “You are extremely impertinent,” he ground out. “No, I am not,” she countered, folding the book shut, “but you are very rude.” He drew in a deep breath, ruling out physical measures. He’d never forcibly moved a lady and he wasn’t about to start now.

He, unlike the impossible woman before him, had standards. “Get out of the chair,” he ordered, then added, “Please.” “Why?” she said. “Do you own it?” “As a matter of fact, I do.” Her gaze traveled up and down his length, judging every inch of him. “You will never convince me that a man wearing muddy breaches”—she gestured towards his hips—“that clearly do not fit, owns this chair.” Edward grasped for an appropriate reply. He’d never had such a ridiculous conversation in his life. “Never convince you, will I?” “That’s right.” She leaned forward and stroked Captain’s ears.

“I do believe this is your dog, though. What a lovely dog he is. Not at all like you. And he seems to like me quite a lot.” His dog was a complete and total traitor. It was clear Captain thought she was absolutely marvelous, smiling like a dratted, besotted fool and leaning into her touch. “Captain, kitchen,” he said. At the command, Captain happily bolted up and hurried out into the hallway, eager to find some treat from one of the maids. “I say,” she huffed, shaking her head, “you needn’t banish the creature.” She glanced at the hearth.

“Have you come to add wood to the fire?” “Wood to the fire?” he repeated, doubting his own ears. “Indeed.” She ventured a smile. “It seems to be growing low. You look as if you’re quite capable of carrying a great many logs.” She thought him a servant? He wasn’t in his usual attire, true, but surely she would recognize the authority of his demeanor. Sometimes he struggled to tell what a person was actually thinking, let alone feeling. So, he forced himself to assess her. Her cheeks were pink. Her eyes sparkled.

Her lush, golden hair spilled about her face as if she had given no thought to it, not at all something he was used to in the women who came into his company. Usually, they had curls that were tight and arranged in artful patterns. Not this one. “Miss,” he said, “please get up and leave the room.” “No.” She snapped the book back open, declaring her determination to stay. “Why ever not?” he demanded, refusing to beg. Dukes did not beg. But his options were growing rather limited. “Because I don’t like it out there,” she replied with unapologetic passion.

“You don’t…” He wondered if she might make short work of that newly appointed head of the French army, Napoleon, if given the chance. “You don’t like it out there?” “No, not at all,” she said, adamant. “Well, that’s really none of my concern. Though I don’t like it out there, either.” “Look,” she said, “if you absolutely must have the chair, of course I shall give it to you. I’m not an awful person, but really I was quite enjoying it and I don’t wish to go back out there.” “Then don’t go back out there,” he said. “You can go to the kitchen.” “With your dog?” she asked, her eyes crackling. He gazed down at her, stunned by the lushness of her person, the curve of her body, the way her lips parted.

She was consumed in the intensity of their discourse, as was he. In his whole life, there’d been no woman who caused him to feel both absolutely infuriated and full of desire at the same time. She was astounding. He couldn’t recall a single person who had ever told him to hie off. He surprisingly liked it. Edward stood perplexed, and he knew there was really only one thing to do to make her go. He let a slow smile curve his lips. “If you do not go, then I will kiss you.” Surely, a proper young lady would run at the threat of seduction and potential ruination. And then his chair would be his again.

That was what the only thing he longed for, after all. Wasn’t it? She stood still for a moment, as if actually contemplating the bold offer, and then she swallowed hard enough to see her throat work, lifted her chin, and dared him right back. “Well, go on then, if you’re so determined.”

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