Just as Araminta and her uninvited companions reached the lane again, the sound of galloping hoofbeats warned them to remain on the verge. A moment later, a glossy white stallion flashed into view, a rider bent low over its head.
Apparently catching sight of the party, the rider pulled up and directed his mount, with a pretty caracoling step, to a halt beside them. The horseman, a darkly handsome man whom Araminta had never seen before, swung himself out of the saddle.
“A thousand pardons, dear lady,” he exclaimed, bowing. “I hope the impetuosity of my approach did not startle you, but I’d heard there was an accident at the mill and –ah, Deppity! Are you quite well, sir? Your hair is dripping!”
“Quite, your Grace. No accident; just an impediment with the wheel, which was speedily repaired.”
So intent was Araminta upon admiring the newcomer’s broad shoulders, strong jaw, sensual lips and the very fine fit of the buffskin breeches over his – oh, my! she very nearly missed Deppity’s manner of addressing him.
‘His Grace!’ Imagine, a duke here, right in her little village! A duke who was young, striking, and impeccably dressed in a bottle green coat, those wonderful breeches and highly-polished Hessian boots sporting not a speck of mud, despite his recent gallop.
A duke who was gazing at her with lazy gray eyes and a seductive expression that hinted of afternoon activities she might find far more enjoyable than a stroll down a pokey little lane.
She’d wanted to try her independence, be a little daring, even, but that suggestive half-smile could tempt her to be positively wicked! She hadn’t felt so attractive, so desirable, so feminine since…well, ever. Ambleforth had married her straight from the schoolroom, without her even having the chance for a London Season.
“Deppity, you must present me at once to this enchanting creature,” the Duke said, still smiling.
Naturally, when a duke describes one as “enchanting,” one cannot help but feel flattered. Flushing, she murmured, “Too kind, Your Grace.”
“Not nearly as kind as I would like to be, once you know me better,” the Duke murmured in a provocative tone that suggested in just what manner he would like to be kind…or perhaps it was only the heat, or her overheated imagination at work.
She waited, nearly breathless with anticipation, but was finally forced to give Deppity a speaking glance before, somewhat sulkily, he said, “Lady Ambleforth, may I present to you Derek Deveril, the Duke of Dashing? He is one of my chief investors.”
If Deppity seemed disturbed, the curate was clearly disapproving, while Lord Silverthorne looked as if the “D” in his name must stand for “disgruntled.”
Meanwhile, the Duke cried, “You are Lady Ambleforth? I am more than charmed, my lady, I am astonished! ‘Tis a most wondrous coincidence, for my chief purpose in coming to the county, along with checking on the progress of Deppity’s mill, was to make your acquaintance. Your grandmother’s second cousin’s niece’s sister and my mother were presented at Court together. I have heard so much of your beauty, your talent, and the wonderful entertainments you and your late husband gave at Ambleforth, both from her and from my eleven bachelor cousins. They are all Dukes, too; perhaps you are acquainted? No? Ah, no matter. You grow prize roses, too, I understand.”
Araminta felt her flush deepening, flattered but flustered that a great Peer of the Land should know so much about her. And one with so many eligible cousins! Perhaps it was time for that London Season she’d never had.
“Your Grace, you make me sound such a paragon! How can I not disappoint?”
“Never,” he said simply. “You could never disappoint.” He gave her a full smile this time, the sun gleaming off his even white teeth.
“I believe we have been standing in this heat long enough,” Mr. Hodges said tersely, once again wiping his brow.
“Your Grace,” Deppity said, “May I also present Mr. Hodges, our curate, and Lord Silverthorne, who is the son of the Duke of – “
“Hodges, always good to meet a man of the cloth,” the Duke interrupted with a genial nod to the curate, “and yes, I know Silverthorne. Or know of him. I’d heard he’d gone rusticating in the country after…”
For a long silent moment, while Silverthorne looked increasingly uncomfortable and annoyed, the Duke’s lips twitched. Finally, he laughed out loud. “Forgive me, Silverthorne! But you have to admit, despite the outcome being social isolation, the incident itself was vastly amusing. Although, with a lady present, I shall say no more.”
“A small mercy,” Silverthorne muttered, looking very put-upon. Perhaps it should be “D” for “dejected,” Araminta thought.
“Would that I had a carriage instead of my stallion, so I might offer you a lift on so sultry a day, Lady Ambleforth,” the Duke said. “I would have brought my phaeton, but for emergencies, or rescuing damsels in distress, a destrier is much faster.”
“I am sure you rescue damsels most delightfully,” Araminta replied. “Though I have no need of rescue. Although there was an accident to my carriage.” Realizing she was blathering – indeed, if breathing normally in the proximity of a dangerous viscount was difficult, ‘twas nearly impossible to think in the presence of an even more darkly dangerous duke – she took a deep breath and said, “That is, ‘tis so lovely a day, I chose to walk. And these gentleman,” she indicated them with an impatient wave of her hand, “took it upon themselves to accompany me.”
“What, uninvited?” the Duke exclaimed. “How unchivalrous! But surely, lovely lady, you will allow me to escort you.”
How does one say “no” to a duke? Even if one wanted to, which she did not. “It would be my pleasure.”
“I sincerely hope so,” he murmured with another of those seductive glances. “And since I am the highest-ranking gentleman present, you must allow me the honor of taking your hand.”
Her heart beating faster, Araminta lay her gloved hand on the Duke’s immaculate sleeve. The feel of perfectly-tailored wool and sleek male muscle under her fingertips sent a jolt of sensation through her, intoxicating and a bit alarming. The Duke might be Dashing, but she feared he was also devilish.
Meanwhile, glancing round at the others, the Duke frowned. “Indeed, Mr. Hodges, you look disturbingly red. Perhaps you should ride Defiant, lest you collapse from the heat.”
“Kind of you, Your Grace, but I shall be perfectly fine walking,” the curate said stiffly.
“Deppity, would you be so good as to lead my stallion, so I may give my attention to Lady Ambleforth?” With a pointed smile, he added, “One shouldn’t discuss anything as vulgar as business before a lady, but I did wish to tell you I’m ready to put another 10,000 pounds into your venture.”
Looking irritated to be playing the groom, nonetheless, Sir Ed clamped his lips together and accepted the reins.
Finally, amusement lighting his face again, the Duke said, “And you, Silverthorne? Do you dwell nearby? Somewhere you can keep – “ His shoulders shaking with suppressed mirth, the Duke broke off in mid-sentence.
Gracious, what had Silverthorne done to earn his disgrace? Araminta wondered, even more intrigued. Might the Duke tell her? Might he do other things to her? What was she to do with this gaggle of guardians when she reached Ambleforth?
Come back tomorrow for the next installment of Lady Ambleforth's adventure!
JULIA JUSTISS is the author of 17 Regency historical romances. Her new series, THE RANSLEIGH ROGUES, will debut in 2013 with Max's story and Will's story. Find news about her books on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and her website, www.juliajustiss.com.
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