Home > Any Duchess Will Do (Spindle Cove #4)(9)

Any Duchess Will Do (Spindle Cove #4)(9)
Author: Tessa Dare


Mr. Simms was a farmer. A poor farmer, yes—but not a destitute one. He owned thirty acres. His cottage was humble, but sound. No one was starving under this roof. A strange nobleman entered his home, and he offered, for all intents and purposes, to sell his daughter?

What of the girl’s safety? What of her reputation? Griff wasn’t the sort of nobleman to buy himself a virgin for despoiling, but Mr. Simms couldn’t know that. This was the point where any decent father—hell, any sort of real man—would at least demand assurances. If not tell Griff to take his feudal offer and go straight to the devil.

But Mr. Simms didn’t. Which told Griff he was a shoddy excuse for a father and no kind of man at all. The farmer wasn’t the least bit concerned about his daughter’s health or reputation. No, he just wanted to be compensated in advance. For his extra trouble when the mare foaled.

“This is truly your only objection?” he asked pointedly, giving the farmer a chance to redeem himself.

Mr. Simms frowned. “Not the only objection.”

Well, thank God.

“There’s the wages she brings home,” he continued. “I’ll need those in advance, too.”

“Her wages.”

Griff had the sudden urge to hit something. Something wearing a coarse homespun shirt, dirt-caked boots, and a greedy sneer. That was it. His mother would need to learn her lesson in some other way, at some other time. He needed to leave. This interview either ended now or it ended badly.

Drawing on some generations-old reserve of ducal composure, he rose to his feet. “Perhaps this was an ill-considered plan. The chances of your daughter succeeding in London society are minuscule, and the risks to her are too great.” He made his way toward the cottage door, pausing only to catch his mother by the elbow and pull her to her feet. “If you’ll excuse me, my mother and I will be on our—”

“Five,” the farmer called.

“Excuse me?”

“I’ll let her go for five pounds.”

Griff could only stare at him. “Good God, man. Are you serious?”

He cracked his neck. “All right, then. You can have her for four pounds, eight. But not a penny less.”

Bloody hell. Griff passed a hand over his face. Now he looked as though he was haggling for the girl, determined to ruin her life for the lowest possible price.

“What an excellent bargain.” Irony dripped from his mother’s words. “I don’t think you could find a more economical choice.”

“I hope you’re happy with yourself,” Griff said.

The duchess arched a brow, deflecting all censure back at him. “Are you?”

No. He wasn’t. He felt like a first-rate ass. He’d thought himself so damned clever, picking the serving girl out of the spinster crowd. And now he’d invaded her home and forced her to watch while her own father placed a price of four pounds, eight shillings on her health and happiness.

Even for him, this was low.

Miss Simms emerged again, moving toward the table with teapot in hand. Their gazes locked, and her eyes taught him some bold, nameless shade of green. Deep in some unexplored virgin forest, there was a vine of that color, just waiting to be discovered. And there was something essential in this girl’s nature that was far, far better than this place.

Just then, Griff observed a telling sequence of events.

A clatter rose from the rear of the house.

With a quiet curse, Pauline Simms stumbled. Hot tea sloshed on the cottage’s dirt floor.

“Paul, I told you—” The farmer’s hand went up in threat.

And standing four full paces away, Pauline—the girl who would hold her own against a duke—flinched.

He’d seen enough.

“Mother, go ahead to the coach.” He quelled her objection with a small gesture, then turned to the girl. “Miss Simms, a word outside. Alone.”

Chapter Three

Pauline followed him out the front door and around to the side of the house. The south side, where there were no windows for the family to peer at them. Neither could the duchess view this corner from the carriage. It was just the two of them, alone with a late-blossoming apple tree and the ridiculousness of it all.

She hoped they might have a good laugh and part ways. There would be evening chores to be done before long, and she’d had enough of dukes for one day.

Apparently, he’d reached a breaking point, too. He stalked the yard in long strides. Back, then forth.

“I’ve reached a decision.” He plucked a dead, dangling branch from the apple tree and tapped it on the fence rail. “Simms, you’re coming with me to London. This very afternoon.”

Her breath left her. “But . . . but why? For what purpose?”

“Duchess training, naturally.”

“But you can’t truly mean to marry me.”

He came to a decisive halt. “Of course I don’t mean to marry you.”

Well. She was glad they had that settled.

“Let’s set a few things straight at the outset,” he said. “I might wear fine clothes and possess a splendid carriage, and I’ve rolled into your life on something that might resemble a whirlwind. Perhaps even a romantic one, to the untutored eye. But this isn’t a fairy tale, and anyone who knows me could tell you . . . I am no prince.”

She laughed a little. “With all due apologies, your grace, I hadn’t formed any opinions to the contrary. I stopped believing in fairy tales long ago.”

“Too practical for such things, I suspect.”

She nodded. “I’m prepared to work hard for the things I want in life.” Sadly, she was still wearing a full year’s hard work spattered in her hair and frock.

“Excellent. Because what I’m offering you is employment. I mean to hire you as a sort of companion to my mother. Come to London, submit to her ‘duchess training,’ and prove a comprehensive catastrophe. Should require little effort on your part.”

Pauline’s jaw worked but no words came out.

“In exchange for your labors, I will give you one thousand pounds.” He leveled his apple-branch switch at the cottage. “And you will never depend on that man again.”

One thousand pounds.

“Your grace, I . . .” She didn’t even know what to say—whether to call his proposal insufferable, or nonsensical, or a dream come true.

Impossible. That was the best word.

“But I can’t. I just can’t.”

He moved closer. The sun caught amber flecks in his dark brown eyes. “You can. And you will. I will make it so.”

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