Yours to Kiss and Conquer, My Duke – Olivia T. Bennet

The two riders outran the wind. A man and a woman, both dark of hair and eyes and both grinning and laughing as they strove to push their steeds ahead of the other. They sprinted across open parkland, away from a large country manor and toward a dark line of trees. The sky was dotted with a few clouds. Ahead a tall hedge loomed. To the right of the riders was a wide break in the hedge, through which a roadway of white gravel flowed, connecting a hard-packed earth track beyond to the manor. The man steered his horse to the gap. The woman, falling behind, took one look and spurred her horse directly for the tall hedge. There was a moment in which her eyes opened wide with a blend of fear and exhilaration. A moment in which her horse jumped over the obstacle and the man, looking over his shoulder, stared aghast. He reached toward her instinctively. She turned her horse to face him. “What on earth did you think you were doing, Charlotte?” he demanded, approaching her. He had a round face, similar enough in shape to her own for the family resemblance to be obvious, even to those who didn’t know the two. “Richard.

I have jumped the Long Hedge, I don’t know how many times. Did you think that while you were away, I spent all of my time with the estate books?” Charlotte had black, curling hair which, unencumbered by the hat, now cascaded around her face. Her cheeks were full and high, eyes brown and sparkling with humor. She smiled and her cheeks dimpled, giving her a mischievous appearance. “Had I known that is how you were occupying yourself I would have returned from Spain, Napoleon or no Napoleon.” His face was stern, dark eyebrows making a straight line above his brown eyes. But his voice trembled with laughter and her beaming grin said she knew her brother was not being serious. “There is also the matter of my beating you in our Parkway Dash. Finally,” she said. Her hat had been lost in the jump, the ribbon that had tied beneath her chin not secure enough to withstand the gale that had flown around her.

She had dark curly hair and a long thin nose with a full-lipped mouth, the mirror of her brother. The difference between the two came from the lines around his eyes and mouth. Lines that had not been there before he had ridden off to war. “You cheated,” he announced. She stuck her tongue out at him. At that moment another pair of riders appeared from around a bend in the road. It ran away from the Park into the cover of trees, to reemerge at some distance, climbing a gentle slope before it was lost to sight once more. A young woman with long fair hair spilling from beneath a white bonnet and a parasol in one hand, the other holding her reins, waved enthusiastically. “Was that you, Lottie,” she asked with incredulity, “that we just saw jumping that simply enormous hedge?” “Yes, it was my foolish sister. Good day to you, Jennifer.

” Richard said, airily. He doffed his tall, conical hat revealing dark, unruly curls. Jennifer blushed, returning his greeting with a smile and turning away to protect her blushes. For a long moment Richard’s eyes rested on her, met by occasional shy glances. The man next to Jennifer noted the interchange with a cold glance from Richard to Jennifer. He nudged his mount forward, interposing himself between the two. Richard greeted him. “My Lord Ranfield, this is an unexpected pleasure.” Charlotte looked regretfully back toward the hat which was currently hanging from a branch in the hedge. She smoothed her curling hair back and brushed at the dark closefitting jacket and riding skirt she wore.

Both were thankfully of a dark enough blue that no splashes of mud thrown up by galloping hooves would show. She remembered Marcus Davenport, Duke of Ranfield. Remembered the shock of golden blond hair, eyes as icy blue as a mountain lake. And a smile that demanded company. Heartfelt and joyous. She remembered the yearning as a girl of six-and-ten, dreaming of her first ball and being swept across the dance floor in his strong arms. She froze as Marcus’ eyes alighted on her. He had a strong jaw, a lifted chin and almondshaped eyes direct and unblinking. There was a rigidity to his face that had not been there before he marched away to war. Lines set as though carved from granite.

While his companion was as lively as the sun was bright, he was cool as an autumn mill pond. He wore a black coat, the tails of which spread behind him across the horse’s croup. A high-collared shirt was tied with an elaborate cravat. His boots shone mirror bright below pristine white pantaloons. The tailoring spoke of wealth even if there was nothing about his appearance that shouted it. For a brief moment those icy-blue eyes held her still, as though he had caught her in his arms. Even breath seemed stilled. Even heartbeats. What horrors did war bring to put such ice into those eyes? Those icy-blue eyes glanced over Charlotte like stones skimming smooth water. The moment might have been an eternity as far as she was concerned.

Marcus looked to Richard, clearing his throat. “Please, Richard. As partners in business let us put the formalities of rank aside. You called me Marcus once.” Those icy-blue eyes started to turn to Charlotte again. Her pulse quickened as she saw the turn of his head. But he seemed to master himself, deliberately turning his horse to put his back to her. Charlotte felt crushed and then angry at herself for feeling so. “I called you Sir in Spain.” Richard replied.

“And Marcus when you signed the contract to take over your late father’s share in our joint enterprise.” Richard bowed in the saddle. “Have you met my sister, Charlotte?” he inquired. “Don’t be silly, Dickie,” Jennifer said. She had ridden to Charlotte’s side and exchanged a brief but warm embrace. “Marcus remembers Lottie from our days as children.” “I meant since then. We’ve all changed,” Richard said. “I have not. Had the pleasure, I mean.

I fear your debut occurred while I was abroad, Miss Manning,” Marcus said, finally turning back to her. Charlotte gave a polite smile and resisted the urge to try and tidy her hair again. She offered her gloved hand and he held it. Both wore gloves but Charlotte felt as though there were nothing separating her skin from his. Her world contracted to a blue-eyed stare and the firm grasp of his hand on hers. “I must say your escapade looked excessively dangerous to me. Not at all what I would expect from a lady.” Charlotte made a point of clenching her teeth behind her lips, so that she could know she wasn’t gaping. How dare he! In one fell swoop to call her foolish and unladylike at the same time. She withdrew her hand and felt proud that she could do it.

He is just a man whatever emotions he may once have engendered in a slip of a girl who did not know any better. “I would certainly take stern action if I found Jennifer to be doing something so rash.” Marcus went on, seemingly oblivious to the stony face Charlotte now directed at him. “Is that so, Lord Ranfield. I do not claim to be as expert on horses as you cavalrymen. But I have been riding since I was a girl and am most accomplished.” Richard looked uncomfortably from Marcus to Charlotte, a fixed grin on his face. His mouth opened and closed as though he wished he could think of something to say. “Do not listen to him, Lottie.” Jennifer said brightly.

“I saw his face. You gave him a fright is all.” “You’re mistaken,” Marcus said icily. “I would agree,” Charlotte put in. But inside she smiled. Were you afraid for me, Marcus? In her head she gave him the name she would never dare utter aloud. The intimacy of thought sent a shiver through her. Again, those icy-blue eyes alighted on hers and flew away like startled birds. “Richard, old chap,” he said, directing his attention back to Charlotte’s brother. “It was my intention to call on you at home to continue our discussion on the matters on which we have been corresponding.

Jennifer and I decided to return from town for the country air and I thought it would be an opportune moment.” “Of course, Marcus. I have some thoughts to share with you after your last letter. Shall we return to the manor and we can discuss them?” The two men turned and spurred their horses to a trot, side by side and already deep into conversation. Charlotte gripped her reins fiercely as she watched them go. Admonished like a wayward child and then dismissed. She had a mind to take her bay gelding back over the Long Hedge just to show him. “I don’t remember him being so objectionable,” she commented as Jennifer nudged her horse into step beside her. “He came back from the war with a layer of ice that hasn’t thawed yet, but he is the same man underneath. I think, perhaps, his reasons for bringing us back from London were not entirely to do with business,” Jennifer hinted with a smile.

Charlotte forced a laugh, still angry and glaring at Marcus’ back. “I’m sorry, Jennifer. But if that is the case he can go back to his business. I do not care to thaw him out.” The shiver had returned at Jennifer’s words. A delightful frisson that she told herself was a remnant of a foolish girl’s fancy. She did not want a husband made of ice and stone.

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