Home > Any Duchess Will Do (Spindle Cove #4)(12)

Any Duchess Will Do (Spindle Cove #4)(12)
Author: Tessa Dare

She hugged her sobbing sister tight and kissed her cheek. “Go inside now.”

“No. No, don’t go.”

There was no good to come of prolonging it. Parting wouldn’t get any easier. Pauline released her sister, turned, and walked away. Daniela’s sobs followed her as she went through the gate and entered the lane, where the duke’s fine carriage waited.

“Pauline?” Her mother’s voice, calling from the front step.

“I’ll be home in a week, Mum.” She didn’t dare look back.

When she moved to enter the coach, her step faltered. The duke extended a hand. His hand was ungloved, and when his strong fingers closed over hers, a tremor passed through her.

“Are you well?” he asked. His other hand went to the small of her back, steadying her.

Pauline drew a deep breath. His strong touch made her want to melt against him, seeking comfort. She pushed the temptation away.

“I’m well,” she said.

“If you need more time to—”

“I don’t.”

“Should you go to her?” he asked.

No. No, that would make everything worse.

It was useless to explain. What did it matter if he thought her unfeeling and callous, anyhow? She wasn’t after his approval. She was doing this for his money.

“My sister always cries, but she’s stronger than you’d think.” She released his hand and mounted the stairs on her own power. “So am I.”

It took a great deal to impress Griff. Many an afternoon in Court, he’d looked on as officers and dignitaries were awarded ribbons, crosses, knighthoods, and more for service to the Crown. Some likely deserved their honors; many didn’t. The pomp and ceremony had him jaded by this point, and God knew he wasn’t prone to heroics himself. But he liked to think he could still recognize bravery when he saw it.

He had the feeling he’d witnessed a true act of courage just now. The girl had steel in her. He’d felt it, beneath his palm.

A good thing, too. Because if she was going to spend the next several days with the Duchess of Halford, Pauline Simms was going to need it.

“You have a week,” he told his mother, settling into the coach.

“A week?” Twin spots of color rose on her cheeks, matching the rubies at her throat.

“A week. Simms’s family can’t spare her any longer than that.”

“I can’t possibly accomplish this in a week.”

“If our Divine Creator could make the heavens, earth, and all its creatures in six days, I should think you can manage one duchess.”

She huffed with indignation. “You know very well I’m not—”

“Wait. Hold that thought.” Griff sent a hand into his breast pocket, searching. When he came up empty, he muttered a mild curse and fumbled in his waistcoat pockets, too.

“What on earth are you looking for?” his mother asked.

“A pencil and a scrap of paper. You were about to say you’re not God, or something to that effect. I mean to have the exact quote, date, and time recorded. An engraved commemorative plaque will hang in every room of Halford House.”

Her lips thinned to a tight line.

“You claimed you could make any woman the toast of London. If you can manage that with Simms in one week, I’ll marry her.” He leveled a single finger at her. “But if this enterprise of yours fails, you will never harangue me on the subject of marriage again. Not this season. Not this decade. Not this lifetime.”

She glowered at him in silence.

Griff smiled, knowing he had her right where he wanted her.

He leaned back, propped one boot on his knee, and stretched his arm across the back of the seat. “If the conditions are unacceptable to you, I can turn this coach around right now.”

She didn’t object. He didn’t turn the coach around.

They forged straight on, and Griff pretended to doze through a lengthy lecture on the vaunted family history. It was a litany of heroes, lawmakers, explorers, scholars . . . All the way from his far-flung ancestors in the Crusades to his father, the great, late diplomat.

Just as the duchess’s tale was winding toward the debauched disappointment that was Griff, they paused to change horses and take dinner near Tonbridge.

Thank God.

“This,” his mother informed her new charge as they alighted from the carriage, “is one of the finest coaching inns in England. Their private dining rooms are peerless.”

Miss Simms made comical shapes with her lips as they entered the establishment. “I should think the Bull and Blossom is the superior place, for my money. More welcoming, and that’s certain.”

“A duchess does not look for an inn that is welcoming,” his mother opined. “A duchess is welcome anywhere, anytime. She relies on the establishment to keep everyone else out.”

“Really?” As they were shown into the dining room, Miss Simms turned to the stony footman. “Is that so?”

The footman pulled out a chair, staring forward at the wall.

She gave the blank-faced servant an amused look and waved her hand before his eyes. “Hullo. Anyone home?”

The footman remained still as a wooden nutcracker, until she gave up and sat down.

Griff took his own seat and summoned the waiter with a look, ordering an assortment of dishes. He was famished.

“Cor,” Miss Simms sighed, putting her elbows on the table and propping her chin on one hand. “I’m famished.”

The duchess rapped the tabletop.

“What now?” the young woman asked.

“First, remove your elbows from the table.”

Miss Simms obeyed, lifting her elbows exactly one inch above the surface of the table.

“Second, mind your tongue. A lady never refers to the state of her internal organs in mixed company. And you will strike that word from your vocabulary at once.”

“What word?”

“You know the word to which I refer.”

“Hm.” Dramatically thoughtful, Miss Simms put a fingertip to her lips and cast a glance at the ceiling. “Was it ‘famished’? Or ‘I’m’?”

“Neither of those.”

“Well, I’m confused,” she said. “I can’t recall saying anything else. I’m just a simple country girl. Overwhelmed by the splendor of this inhospitable establishment. How am I to know what word it is I shouldn’t say if your grace will not enlighten me?”

A pause stretched, as they all waited to see whether his mother could be provoked into repeating such a common slang as “cor.”

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