Visitors never came to west Hampshire during the Season.
Not on purpose, anyway.
Thus the occupants of the three massive coaches
bumping down the rutted lane that ran from Westminster to
the main road north of Basingstoke had to be lost. Very
Hiking her brown muslin skirt up a little
because of the spattering mud, Emma Grenville hurried into
the field at the edge of the road. Expensive-looking
vehicles like that werenâ€™t liable to turn aside for the
headmistress of a girlsâ€™ school. And they were a
magnificent sight. Elizabeth and Jane would wish theyâ€™d
gone walking with her this morning as sheâ€™d encouraged.
Three grand coaches gracing west Hampshire in the
summertime â€“ who would have thought?
The first vehicle rocked by her without pause,
a red dragon and sword emblazoned on the door and the
flimsy curtains drawn, no doubt against the sharp eastern
sunlight. Nobility, she thought, her curiosity deepening.
As the second coach neared, the driver, a small, balding
man, tipped his hat at her and grinned.
Oh, for heavenâ€™s sake. She was staring like a
milkmaid on her first trip to market. One of the most
basic lessons she taught her students was not to stare.
Obviously she needed to follow her own teachings.
Flushing, Emma turned and continued toward the Academy at a
A thunderous crack made her jump and turn
around. The second coach lurched with a crooked twist into
the air, careening off one of the numerous boulders that
had risen after the spring rains. It slammed back onto the
road again with an even louder crunch. The near wheel
snapped off the axle, hitting the ground a foot from Emma
and rolling past her into the tall grass. The vehicle
pitched forward and came to a grinding halt in the mud.
â€śMy goodness,â€ť Emma gasped, putting her hand to
The horses were stomping and snorting, and the
driver cursing, as she hurried back to the coach. The
flimsy door swung open just as she reached it.
â€śDamnation, Wycliffe! You and your stupid
expeditions!â€ť The well-dressed young man tottered in the
doorway, then slipped and fell face first into the muddy
road. He very nearly landed on her foot, and Emma hastily
stepped backward -- and collided with a brick wall.
Not a brick wall, she amended, as it grabbed
her elbow when she stumbled. â€śSteady,â€ť it said in a deep
voice that resonated down her spine, and lifted her upright
Emmaâ€™s surprised shriek caught in her throat as
she whipped around. The brick wall was a giant of a
fellow, tall and broad-shouldered and solid. The giant had
light green eyes, and they gazed at her from beneath
curved, aristocratic eyebrows. One of them arched in
obvious jaded amusement.
â€śPerhaps you could move aside.â€ť
â€śOh.â€ť She stumbled sideways, her words
catching as her feet slipped again. â€śBeg pardon.â€ť She
couldnâ€™t recall ever seeing anyone, much less a nobleman,
put together in quite so . . . magnificent a fashion.
The devilish handsome giant brushed past her
and with one arm heaved the fallen fellow back to his
feet. â€śInjured, Blumton?â€ť he asked.
â€śNo, Iâ€™m not injured, but look at me! Iâ€™m a
â€śSo you are. Get away before you fling mud on
me.â€ť The giant gestured at the edge of the road.
A woman appeared in the coachâ€™s doorway and
collapsed artfully into her rescuerâ€™s arms. Long blond
tresses, several shades lighter than the giantâ€™s wind-
ruffled, honey-colored hair, had come loose from their
clips. Her curls spilled over his arm in a golden cascade
as he held her close against his chest.
â€śExcellent aim, Alice,â€ť he said. Apparently
unmoved by her unconscious state, he made as though to drop
his burden in the muddy road.
Emma stepped forward. â€śSir, you cannot mean to-
Alice recovered instantly and flung her arms
around his neck. â€śDonâ€™t you dare, Wycliffe! Itâ€™s filthy!â€ť
â€śThatâ€™s not likely to convince me to continue
hauling you about. Iâ€™m standing in it, and so is this
â€śChatty?â€ť Emma repeated, scowling. Handsome or
not, his manners were obviously lacking, and as she taught
her students, manners were the first measure of a
A second female pulled herself up to the door
of the coach. â€śOh, let him go, Alice, and give someone
else a chance.â€ť
â€śIâ€™ll rescue you, Lady Sylvia,â€ť the muddy
gentleman stated, slogging back toward the coach and
lifting his arms.
â€śAfter youâ€™ve been wallowing in the mud? Donâ€™t
be absurd, Charles. Grey, if you please?â€ť
Emma started to say that if they would all just
relocate to the edge of the road, they would find the
ground much drier, but as they were nobles and nobles
seemed to thrive on such silliness, she folded her arms and
watched. Chatty female -- ha.
Grey, as the ladies were calling him, seemed an
odd nickname for such a powerful-looking, golden
male. â€śLionâ€ť, or something equally dangerous sounding,
would have been a better fit.
He scowled at the other female. â€śI canâ€™t carry
â€śWell, I refuse to be rescued by Charles
A low-pitched sigh sounded several feet behind
Emma. At the border of the road, on the one nice, dry
strip of soil, another nobleman stood gazing at the scene.
His hands were in his pockets, and his light blue eyes
twinkled despite the look of horrified affront on his lean,
â€śGads, I suppose that leaves me,â€ť he drawled,
eyeing the sodden roadway with distaste.
Lady Sylviaâ€™s lips tightened. â€śI would prefer
â€śYes, it does, Tristan,â€ť the larger man
snapped. â€śQuit tiptoeing about and get over here.â€ť
â€śI will expect you to purchase me a new pair of
As the dark-haired Tristan trod toward them,
Emma gazed at the giant again. The name Wycliffe tickled
at the back of her mind, but she couldnâ€™t quite place it.
She had friends who had left the Academy in
years past and married well, and she supposed one of them
might have mentioned the name. Certainly sheâ€™d never set
eyes on him before. Contented spinster and firmly on the
shelf though she was, he was handsome enough that she would
have felt remiss not to notice. Splendid gentlemen hardly
ever came driving along this road.
As though remembering her presence, he faced
her again, and Emma couldnâ€™t help blushing at her
â€śIf youâ€™re intent on witnessing this idiocy,
girl,â€ť he rumbled, â€śat least make yourself useful. Go
watch the horses while Simmons has the other coaches
No man spoke to the headmistress of a reputable
girlsâ€™ school in that tone. â€śI am hardly a girl, sir,â€ť she
said crisply, â€śand since no one appears to be injured,
which was my reason for approaching, I do have better
things to do than wade through mud you people are too silly
to get out of.â€ť She turned around and picked her way back
to the edge of the road. â€śGood day.â€ť
â€śWhat cheek,â€ť the mud-covered one, Charles,
â€śServes you right, Wycliffe,â€ť Tristanâ€™s deeper
voice said. â€śYou canâ€™t bully everyone into doing your
â€śI suppose we canâ€™t expect the peasantry to
recognize their betters,â€ť Lady Sylvia added from her
precarious perch in the coachâ€™s doorway.
Although she wanted to point out
that â€śpeasantryâ€ť was an archaic term given the current
state of economic growth and industrial advances, Emma kept
walking. They could deuced well continue to wallow in
their own ignorance and in the Hampshire mud for all she
By the time they sorted out who would continue
on to Haverly Manor in which carriage, Greydon Brakenridge,
the Duke of Wycliffe, was beginning to wish heâ€™d walked off
down the road with that odd chit. On foot, he would
already have been at his uncleâ€™s estate and tilting a
blessedly strong glass of whiskey down his throat.
â€śThey grow the girls pretty in Hampshire,â€ť
Tristan Carroway, Viscount Dare, mused as he took his seat
in the lead coach.
Greydon glanced at him. â€śShe was soft-headed.â€ť
â€śYou think everyone is soft-headed. She told
you off well enough.â€ť
â€śShe was rude.â€ť Alice sat as close to Wycliffe
as she could, ostensibly so he could catch her if she
happened to faint again. In the closed, stuffy coach, it
was nearly suffocating. Thank God Sylvia had opted to ride
with her maid. â€śI suspect everyone in this godforsaken
wilderness will be quite as barbaric.â€ť She shuddered.
Tristan snorted. â€śThis is Hampshire -- not
â€śAs if one could tell from that encounter.â€ť
Ignoring the argument, Grey pulled back the
curtain on his side of the coach, hoping for a breeze as he
slouched to gaze out the small window. That girl on the
road had been an odd little thing, more well-spoken than
heâ€™d expected, with large, hazel eyes in a pert oval face,
capped by an absurdly proper bonnet. He would have to ask
Uncle Dennis or Aunt Regina if they knew who she was.
Greydon sighed. Heâ€™d seen Dennis and Regina
Hawthorne, the Earl and Countess of Haverly, less often
than he should have over the years, and even more
infrequently in the last six or seven since heâ€™d inherited
the dukedom. The unexpected invitation to Hampshire had
been well-timed for several reasons, yet it was damned
troubling. He couldnâ€™t think of many reasons why Dennis
would want him at Haverly in the middle of the London
Season, but the most likely one would seem to be money.
â€śWhat did you say the nearest town was, Grey?â€ť
Tristan asked, fanning himself with his hat as he viewed
the green countryside through the window.
â€śBasingstoke. Iâ€™ll have to visit.â€ť
Grey eyed him. â€śWhy?â€ť
The viscount flashed him a grin. â€śIf you
didnâ€™t notice, donâ€™t expect me to point out the details.â€ť
He had noticed, which bothered him. If there
was one thing he didnâ€™t need any more of, it was female
entanglements. â€śHave at it, Tris, if itâ€™ll keep you from
â€śA fine thing to say to a guest.â€ť
â€śYou arenâ€™t my guest. In fact, I donâ€™t recall
inviting any of you.â€ť
Alice laughed. â€śLondon would have been a
hopeless bore without you there, Your Grace.â€ť She leaned
closer. If heâ€™d been a more moveable object, her
attentions would have pushed him out the door of the
carriage. â€śAnd I promise to keep you entertained here.â€ť
Tristan sat forward, placing a hand on
Greydonâ€™s knee. â€śAnd so do I, Your Grace.â€ť
â€śOh, get off.â€ť
â€śGet away, Dare,â€ť Alice complained. â€śYouâ€™ll
â€śDonâ€™t forget, I was the one in the coach with
Grey. You were behind us, with Sylvia and Blum--â€ť
â€śTry arguing in pantomime for a bit, why donâ€™t
you?â€ť Grey grumbled, folding his arms over his chest and
closing his eyes. He really didnâ€™t mind having Tristan
about -- besides him owing the viscount a large favor for
rescuing him from the claws of a particularly determined
female, theyâ€™d known one another since before university,
and Hampshire during the Season didnâ€™t have much to offer.
Alice would have been tolerable, as well, if
she hadnâ€™t decided to view him as marriage material â€“ as if
he had any intention of marrying anyone after his narrow
escape from Lady Caroline Sheffield. Alice apparently
didnâ€™t believe the depth of his convictions, though,
because every time she ended up in his bed over the past
few weeks, she seemed to want to talk about jewelry -- and
rings, in particular.
He shouldnâ€™t have left London, but Alice wasnâ€™t
the only female hunting him, and after the end of his so-
called association with Caroline, fleeing to Hampshire for
a week or two had been too much of a temptation to resist.
â€śIsnâ€™t that Haverly?â€ť Tristan asked.
Grey opened his eyes. â€śThatâ€™s it.â€ť
Heâ€™d always been fond of his uncleâ€™s old
estate, and each time he set eyes on it he remembered why.
Old green vines crept up toward the windows, which
reflected onto the glassy surface of the pond that nestled
at the foot of the long, sloping hill. Swans and ducks
swam at the edge of the water, while grazing sheep dotted
the park on either side of the wide, curving front drive,
lending the whole scene a sense of pastoral paradise, the
model for a Gainsborough painting.
â€śEverything looks well,â€ť he mused.
â€śYou were expecting something ill?â€ť Tristan sat
forward to get a better look.
Cursing at himself for whetting Dareâ€™s
bottomless curiosity, Grey assumed a relaxed pose. â€śI
wasnâ€™t expecting anything. The invitation to visit
surprised me, is all, and Iâ€™m relieved everything looks to
be in order.â€ť
â€śI think itâ€™s quaint.â€ť Alice leaned across his
arm, pressing her ample bosom against him. â€śHow far is
Basingstoke, did you say?â€ť
â€śI didnâ€™t. Two miles or so.â€ť
â€śAnd the nearest neighbors?â€ť
â€śAre you planning to be social?â€ť Tristan gave
a slight grin. â€śOr are you scouting out the nearest female
â€śI am being social, something you obviously
need to practice,â€ť she complained.
â€śThatâ€™s what Iâ€™m attempting at this very
moment, my dear.â€ť
Grey shut his eyes again, his temple throbbing,
as the two of them resumed their sparring. The trip to
Haverly should have been a pleasant and peaceful diversion â€“
an escape, however short-lived, from all female
entanglements up to and including his demented mother,
Frederica, the Duchess of Wycliffe. He hadnâ€™t counted on
his troubles accompanying him to Hampshire.
Once Alice had discovered his plans, though,
she had promptly told everyone occupying his box at
Vauxhall Gardens. Short of killing them, the only viable
alternative had been swearing them to secrecy and
suggesting they come along.
â€śGrey, arenâ€™t you going to defend me?â€ť Alice
He opened one eye. â€śIt was your idea to come
to Hampshire. Fend for yourself.â€ť
Tristan was looking at him curiously again, but
he had more sense than to say anything in front of Alice.
Greydon had no idea what to tell him, anyway.
Usually he liked a good argument as well as
anyone, and a good challenge even more. The former,
however, had begun to seem pointless, and the latter
nonexistent. He was the bloody Duke of Wycliffe: anything
he wanted was within easy grasp, and more than he wanted
was being pushed at him relentlessly. Lately he seemed to
spend more time evading trouble than seeking it out. So
much for the excitement of oneâ€™s reckless youth.
The coach rolled to a stop. Quelling the urge
to leap out and escape into the beech forest, Greydon
waited until Hobbes, Haverlyâ€™s butler, pulled open the
â€śYour Grace,â€ť he said in his worn, gravel-rough
voice. â€śWelcome back to Haverly.â€ť
â€śThank you, Hobbes.â€ť He stepped down and
turned to offer Alice his hand. â€śWe lost a coach about a
mile back. Youâ€™ll need to send a smith and probably a new
wheel. I left Simmons and half the servants behind with
â€śIâ€™ll see to it at once, Your Grace. I trust
there were no injuries?â€ť
â€śMy clothes will have to be put down,â€ť Charles
said, as he climbed down from beside the driver. â€śThank
you so much for making me bake out in the sun. I feel like
â€śYou look like one,â€ť Tristan said
helpfully. â€śThereâ€™s always the pond.â€ť
A look of horror crossing the dandyâ€™s face,
Charles backed toward the manor. â€śJust keep your distance,
â€śOh, shut up, Charles.â€ť Lady Sylvia swished up
from the rear coach. â€śYou prattle more than anyone I
know. You should have heard him all morning. Prattle,
â€śHm.â€ť Grey turned to lead the way to the wide
oak front doors of Haverly. â€śYou werenâ€™t recommending that
Parliament be disbanded again, were you, Blumton?â€ť
â€śOf course not. I only pointed out that
limiting the power of the king limits the power of the
Tristan opened his mouth, but Sylvia put her
dainty hand over it. â€śNo. You will not encourage him.
Iâ€™ve been listening to it since we left London. Next time,
I get to ride with Gr--â€ť
Dennis Hawthorne, the Earl of Haverly, strode
around the side of the house from the direction of the
stables. His round face bore a wide grin, and he clapped
his hands as he approached. Even smiling, lines of worry
creased his forehead, and his eyes seemed disturbingly
somber. Grey went forward to meet him, revising his
earlier assessment of Haverly. Something was definitely
â€śUncle Dennis,â€ť he said, allowing the shorter
man to pull him into a sound embrace. â€śYou look well.â€ť
â€śAs do you, my boy. Introduce me to your
friends. I know Dare, of course.â€ť
Tristan stuck out his hand. â€śThank you for the
invitation, Haverly. His Grace was wasting away in
â€śEh?â€ť Dennis looked up at his nephew, his brow
furrowed. â€śNot taken ill, are you, lad?â€ť
Only Uncle Dennis called him lad, any
longer. â€śHardly,â€ť he said dryly, sending Tristan a warning
glance. He was here to escape all memories of Caroline,
not to repeat his whole damned tale of woe. â€śJust getting
older. Uncle, allow me to present Lady Sylvia Kincaid and
Miss Boswell. And the mud hen is Lord Charles Blumton.â€ť
â€śWelcome to all of you,â€ť the earl said, bowing
and shaking hands. â€śI hope you donâ€™t find poor old
Hampshire too rustic. Weâ€™re not London, but we do have our
â€śLike what?â€ť Alice asked, eyeing Greydon from
beneath her lashes.
â€śWell, Haverly is host to a picnic, almost a
fair, in August. And Thursday, the Academy will be
presenting Romeo and Juliet.â€ť
Charlesâ€™s expression brightened. â€śAcademy?
Greydon scowled as he realized heâ€™d landed
squarely in the middle of enemy territory. â€śGood God. The
damned Academy. Iâ€™d nearly forgotten about that blight on
â€śThatâ€™s hardly fair,â€ť his uncle returned,
gesturing them toward the front entry. â€śMiss Grenvilleâ€™s
Academy is a finishing school for young ladies of breeding,
Lord Charles. It stands on Haverly land.â€ť
â€śA girlsâ€™ school?â€ť Charles looked as though
heâ€™d swallowed something bitter. â€śI take it then,
Wycliffe, that you also disapprove of the education of
Grey sidestepped his muddy companion and
strolled into the manor. â€śI have no problem with the
education of women,â€ť he said over his shoulder. â€śIâ€™ve just
never seen it done properly.â€ť
â€śDonâ€™t be a beast, Wycliffe,â€ť Lady Sylvia
cooed. â€śI attended a finishing school.â€ť
â€śAnd what did you learn?â€ť he asked, scowling as
Dare mumbled a curse. They should have known better than
to bring it up. â€śOh, yes. You learned to say whatever I
want to hear. And to follow the tradition of becoming
â€śSo I suppose weâ€™re not going to be attending
the performance?â€ť Tristan interrupted, following him
â€śOnly if you kill me first and drag my rotting
carcass along with you.â€ť