Home > Any Duchess Will Do (Spindle Cove #4)(10)

Any Duchess Will Do (Spindle Cove #4)(10)
Author: Tessa Dare

She turned her gaze to the cottage, frustrated with his commanding demeanor and his stubbornly enticing scent. He smelled so wretchedly trustworthy.

“Don’t worry about your clothes and your things,” he said. “Leave it all. You’ll have new.”

“Your grace . . .”

He tapped the branch against his booted calf. “Don’t play at reluctance. What can possibly be keeping you here? A post serving tea to spinsters? Farm labor, and sleeping space in a drafty loft? A brutish father who would eagerly sell you for five pounds?”

She set her teeth. “Five pounds is no paltry sum to folk like us.”

And even if it weren’t a vast amount, it was five pounds more than “completely worthless,” which was how her father set a woman’s value most days.

“Be that as it may,” he said, “five pounds is considerably less than a thousand. Even a farm girl with no schooling can do that arithmetic.”

She shook her head. Amazing. Just when she thought he’d exhausted the ways to insult or demean her, he proved her wrong.

He said, “My mother has too much time at leisure. She needs a protégé to take shopping and drill in diction. I need her diverted from matchmaking. It’s a simple solution.”

“Simple? You mean to bring me to your home . . . buy me all new things . . . pay me a thousand pounds. All that, just to cure your mother of meddling?”

He shrugged in confirmation.

“I wouldn’t call that simple, your grace. Much easier to just tell her you don’t wish to marry. Don’t you think?”

His eyes narrowed. “I think you enjoy being difficult. Which makes you the ideal candidate for this post.”

Pauline was divided on how to receive that statement. For once, she was someone’s ideal. Unfortunately, she was his ideal thorn in the side.

Nevertheless, his offer tempted in a perverse way. For once in her life she wouldn’t be failing at success. She’d be succeeding at failure. No more would she hear, “But she means well”—the duke didn’t want her to mean well at all.

“None of this matters,” she said at last. “I can’t leave Spindle Cove.”

“I’m offering you a lifetime of financial security. All I’m asking in return is a few weeks of impertinence. Think of it as your chance to write the practical girl’s fairy tale. Come away to London in my fancy carriage. Have some fine new gowns. Don’t change a whit. Don’t fall in love with me. At the end of it, we part ways. And you live wealthily ever after.” He looked to the carriage. “Just say yes, Simms. We need to be going.”

What would it take to convince him? She raised her voice, enunciating each word as best an uneducated farm girl could. “I . Can’t. Go.”

He matched her volume. “Well, I can’t leave you.”

The world was suddenly very quiet. The duke went absolutely still. She could have thought him a statue if not for the stray apple blossom decorating his shoulder and the breeze stirring his dark, wavy hair. Somewhere above them a songbird chirped and whistled for a mate.

She swallowed hard. “Why not?”

“I don’t know.”

He tilted his head and stared at her with fresh concentration. She tried not to blush or fidget as his slow, measured paces brought them toe-to-toe. So close, she could see the individual grains of whiskers dotting his jaw. They were lighter than his hair—almost ginger, in this light.

“There’s something about you.” His ungloved hand went to her hair, teasing it gently. A little shower of crystals fell to the ground. “Something . . . all over you.”

Good heavens. He was touching her—without leave, or any logical reason. And it should have been shocking—but the most surprising part was how natural it felt. So simple and unforced, as though he did this every day.

She wouldn’t mind it, Pauline thought. Being touched like this, every day. As though there were something precious and fragile beneath the grit of her life, just waiting to be uncovered.

He dusted more fine white powder from her shoulder. “What is this? You’re just coated with it.”

Her answer came out as a whisper. “It’s sugar.”

He lifted his thumb to his mouth, absently tasting. His lips twisted in unpleasant surprise.

“Sugar mixed with alum,” she amended.

“Oddly fitting.” He reached for her again, this time leading with the backs of his fingers.

She felt herself leaning forward, seeking his touch.

“Pauline?” a familiar voice interrupted. “Pauline, who’s that man?”

She jumped back and turned to spy Daniela peeking out from the west side of the cottage. After a moment of internal debate, Pauline waved her sister forward. There was no easier way to explain her refusal than to let him see for himself.

“Your grace, may I present my sister, Daniela. Daniela, our guest is a duke. That means you must curtsy and call him ‘your grace.’ ”

Daniela curtsied. “Good day, your grace.”

The words came out thick and nearly unintelligible, the way they always did when Daniela was nervous. Her tongue wasn’t so nimble with strangers.

“The duke was just leaving.”

Daniela curtsied again. “Goodbye, your grace.”

Pauline watched him with keen eyes, waiting. People of his rank sent their simple folk to asylums or paid someone to tend them in the attic—anything to hide them from view. Still, he would be able to tell. Everyone could always tell within a minute of meeting Daniela.

The familiar anger welled within her, fast and defensive—a response learned from years of deflecting insults and slights. Her hand reflexively made a fist.

He probably wouldn’t resort to name-calling. Idiot, numskull, half-wit, dummy, simpleton. Those words would be beneath a duke, wouldn’t they?

But he would have some reaction. They always did. Even well-meaning people found some way to give offense, treating Daniela like a puppy or an infant, instead of like a full-grown woman.

Most likely the duke would curl his lip in disgust. Or turn his gaze and pretend she didn’t exist. Perhaps he would sneer or shudder, and that would give Pauline just the surge of anger she needed to send him away.

But he didn’t do any of those things.

He spoke in a completely unaffected, matter-of-fact tone. “Miss Daniela. A pleasure.”

And as Pauline watched, the duke—God above, a bloody duke—lifted her sister’s hand to his lips. And kissed it.

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