Home > Any Duchess Will Do (Spindle Cove #4)(8)

Any Duchess Will Do (Spindle Cove #4)(8)
Author: Tessa Dare

Oh, excellent. The girl wanted him to explain it.

Griff exhaled, running a hand through his hair. There was no satisfactory explanation he could offer. He had no bloody idea what he was doing in this hovel.

Something sharp jabbed him in the kidney, nudging him forward. That damned parasol again.

Oh, yes. He recalled it now. There was a reason he was here, and the Reason Herself needed a sharp lesson in minding her own affairs.

He snatched the parasol from his mother’s grip and presented it to the farmwife. “Please accept this gift as thanks for your hospitality.”

Mrs. Simms was a small woman with stooped shoulders. She looked as faded and wrung out as the dish towel in her red-knuckled hands. The woman stared at the furled parasol, seemingly dumbfounded by its tooled ivory handle.

“I insist.” He pressed it toward her.

She took it, reluctantly. “That’s v-very kind, your grace.”

“Never enter a house empty-handed. My mother taught me that.” He shot the duchess a look. “Mother, sit down.”

She sniffed. “I don’t believe I—”

“Here.” With his boot, he hooked a rough wooden bench and pulled it out from the table. Its legs scratched across the straw-strewn dirt floor. “Sit here. You are a guest in this house.”

She sat, arranging her voluminous skirts about her. But she didn’t try to look pleased about it.

For the next minute or so, Griff learned how it felt to be a menagerie exhibit, as the collected Simms family stood about, gawking at them in silence.

“Mrs. Simms,” he finally said, “perhaps you’d be so kind as to offer us some refreshment. I would have a word with your husband.”

With evident relief at her dismissal, Mrs. Simms drew her daughter into the kitchen. Griff pulled a cane-backed chair away from the table and sat.

As Simms settled on the other chair, the burly farmer narrowed his eyes. “What can I do for you, yer grace?”

“It’s about your daughter.”

Simms grunted. “I knew it. What’s the girl done now?”

“It’s not something she’s done. It’s what my mother would like her to do.”

Simms cut a shrewd glance toward the duchess. “Is her grace needing a scullery maid, then?”

“No. My mother would like a daughter-in-law. She thinks I need a wife. And she claims she can make your girl”—he waved in the direction of the kitchen—“into a duchess.”

For a moment the farmer was silent. Then his face split in a gap-toothed grin. He chuckled, in a low, greasy way.

“Pauline,” he said. “A duchess.”

“I hope you won’t be offended, Mr. Simms, if I admit doubts as to the likelihood of her success.”

“A duchess.” The farmer shook his head and continued chuckling.

The boorish, sinister tone of his laughter had Griff shifting his weight on the chair. To be sure, it was an absurd idea. But even so, shouldn’t a man defend his own daughter?

He cleared his throat. “Here’s my offer. A man only has one mother, and I’ve decided to indulge mine. What say I take your daughter to London? There, my mother might have her best crack at transforming her from a serving girl into a lady sufficiently polished and cultured to be a duke’s bride.”

Simms laughed again.

“Of course, in the much more likely event that this enterprise fails, we will return your daughter to you. At the least, she’ll come home with a few new gowns and some exposure to the finer things in life.”

“My girl don’t need new gowns. Nor any of your finer things.”

Just then the girl in question returned to set the table. The dish she placed before Griff was possibly the ugliest teacup he’d ever seen—a cheaply painted bit of china no doubt birthed in some cut-rate factory and passed down through several owners. But before releasing the saucer, she gave it a brisk quarter turn, so that the pathetic, limp flower on the cup would face him and the saucer’s chip was on the hidden side.

The meaning in the gesture wasn’t lost on Griff. She was a proud one, no question. Also smart-mouthed and bold enough to bait a duke and his dragon of a mother. None of those traits were desirable qualities in a serving girl, much less in a bride.

But they were qualities Griff appreciated in general, and he was beginning to admire this Pauline Simms. Just a bit, and just for herself. During her few minutes in the kitchen, she’d tied back her hair. Her figure remained unremarkable, but now he could see she was more than a little pretty. High cheekbones, gentle nose, eyes tipped at the corners like a cat’s. Quite fetching, really, in a rustic, country way. All the farmhands must be mad for her.

You’ve sworn off women, a voice inside him nagged.

Well, that oath needed some amendment. He’d sworn off involvement with women, perhaps. That didn’t mean he was going to poke out his eyes. A bit of casual appreciation never hurt anyone—and he suspected it might do this particular woman some good.

“If you’re set on her, we can talk.” Simms scratched his jaw. “But I can’t let her go easy.”

Good, Griff thought. No right-thinking father should let a bright, pretty daughter go easily.

The farmer lifted his voice. “Come ’ere, Paul.”

She obeyed. As she moved toward them, her mouth was a tight line.

“Look at these ’ands of hers,” Simms said, taking his daughter by the wrist and extending her hand and forearm for Griff’s inspection.

Her fingers were slender and graceful, but her palm showed the calluses and scars of menial labor—labor more strenuous than serving pots of tea to spinsters. No doubt she helped with the farm work, too.

Simms shook his daughter’s wrist, and her hand flopped up and down. “No one else has hands this small. Nor an arm this thin.” He made a circle of his thumb and forefinger, easily ringing Pauline’s slender wrist. “I’ve a mare about to foal. Ain’t no one else on this farm what can reach up inside and grab the foreleg, if need be.”

The farmer slid the ring of his thumb and forefinger from Pauline’s wrist all the way to her elbow, visually demonstrating just what equine depths his slender-armed daughter would be called to explore.

Griff’s missed breakfast now seemed like a blessing.

“Jes’ look at that,” Simms said. “She can reach all the way to the womb.”

“Father.” Pauline snatched her arm away.

“That’s worth something, right there,” her father said. “Can’t let her go without compensation. In advance.”

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