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 lost.
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 weren’t liable to turn aside for the headmistress of a girls’ school. And they were a magnificent sight. Elizabeth and Jane would wish they’d gone walking with her this morning as she’d encouraged. Three grand coaches gracing west Hampshire in the summertime – 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 heaven’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 faster pace.
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.
“My goodness,” Emma gasped, putting her hand to her heart.
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.
“Damnation, Wycliffe! You and your stupid expeditions!” 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. “Steady,” it said in a deep voice that resonated down her spine, and lifted her upright again.
Emma’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.
“Perhaps you could move aside.”
“Oh.” She stumbled sideways, her words catching as her feet slipped again. “Beg pardon.” She couldn’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. “Injured, Blumton?” he asked.
“No, I’m not injured, but look at me! I’m a bloody mess!”
“So you are. Get away before you fling mud on me.” The giant gestured at the edge of the road.
A woman appeared in the coach’s doorway and collapsed artfully into her rescuer’s arms. Long blond tresses, several shades lighter than the giant’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.
“Excellent aim, Alice,” he said. Apparently unmoved by her unconscious state, he made as though to drop his burden in the muddy road.
Emma stepped forward. “Sir, you cannot mean to--”
Alice recovered instantly and flung her arms around his neck. “Don’t you dare, Wycliffe! It’s filthy!”
“That’s not likely to convince me to continue hauling you about. I’m standing in it, and so is this chatty female.”
“Chatty?” Emma repeated, scowling. Handsome or not, his manners were obviously lacking, and as she taught her students, manners were the first measure of a gentleman.
A second female pulled herself up to the door of the coach. “Oh, let him go, Alice, and give someone else a chance.”
“I’ll rescue you, Lady Sylvia,” the muddy gentleman stated, slogging back toward the coach and lifting his arms.
“After you’ve been wallowing in the mud? Don’t be absurd, Charles. Grey, if you please?”
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. “Lion”, or something equally dangerous sounding, would have been a better fit.
He scowled at the other female. “I can’t carry everyone.”
“Well, I refuse to be rescued by Charles Blumton.”
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, handsome face.
“Gads, I suppose that leaves me,” he drawled, eyeing the sodden roadway with distaste.
Lady Sylvia’s lips tightened. “I would prefer n--”
“Yes, it does, Tristan,” the larger man snapped. “Quit tiptoeing about and get over here.”
“I will expect you to purchase me a new pair of boots, Wycliffe.”
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 couldn’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 she’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 couldn’t help blushing at her unscholarly thoughts.
“If you’re intent on witnessing this idiocy, girl,” he rumbled, “at least make yourself useful. Go watch the horses while Simmons has the other coaches brought up.”
No man spoke to the headmistress of a reputable girls’ school in that tone. “I am hardly a girl, sir,” she said crisply, “and 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.” She turned around and picked her way back to the edge of the road. “Good day.”
“What cheek,” the mud-covered one, Charles, sniffed.
“Serves you right, Wycliffe,” Tristan’s deeper voice said. “You can’t bully everyone into doing your bidding.”
“I suppose we can’t expect the peasantry to recognize their betters,” Lady Sylvia added from her precarious perch in the coach’s doorway.
Although she wanted to point out that “peasantry” 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 cared.
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 he’d walked off down the road with that odd chit. On foot, he would already have been at his uncle’s estate and tilting a blessedly strong glass of whiskey down his throat.
“They grow the girls pretty in Hampshire,” Tristan Carroway, Viscount Dare, mused as he took his seat in the lead coach.
Greydon glanced at him. “She was soft-headed.”
“You think everyone is soft-headed. She told you off well enough.”
“She was rude.” 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. “I suspect everyone in this godforsaken wilderness will be quite as barbaric.” She shuddered.
Tristan snorted. “This is Hampshire -- not Africa.”
“As if one could tell from that encounter.”
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 he’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. He’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 he’d inherited the dukedom. The unexpected invitation to Hampshire had been well-timed for several reasons, yet it was damned troubling. He couldn’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.
“What did you say the nearest town was, Grey?” Tristan asked, fanning himself with his hat as he viewed the green countryside through the window.
“Basingstoke. I’ll have to visit.”
Grey eyed him. “Why?”
The viscount flashed him a grin. “If you didn’t notice, don’t expect me to point out the details.”
He had noticed, which bothered him. If there was one thing he didn’t need any more of, it was female entanglements. “Have at it, Tris, if it’ll keep you from annoying me.”
“A fine thing to say to a guest.”
“You aren’t my guest. In fact, I don’t recall inviting any of you.”
Alice laughed. “London would have been a hopeless bore without you there, Your Grace.” She leaned closer. If he’d been a more moveable object, her attentions would have pushed him out the door of the carriage. “And I promise to keep you entertained here.”
Tristan sat forward, placing a hand on Greydon’s knee. “And so do I, Your Grace.”
“Oh, get off.”
“Get away, Dare,” Alice complained. “You’ll ruin everything.”
“Don’t forget, I was the one in the coach with Grey. You were behind us, with Sylvia and Blum--”
“Try arguing in pantomime for a bit, why don’t you?” Grey grumbled, folding his arms over his chest and closing his eyes. He really didn’t mind having Tristan about -- besides him owing the viscount a large favor for rescuing him from the claws of a particularly determined female, they’d known one another since before university, and Hampshire during the Season didn’t have much to offer.
Alice would have been tolerable, as well, if she hadn’t decided to view him as marriage material – as if he had any intention of marrying anyone after his narrow escape from Lady Caroline Sheffield. Alice apparently didn’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 shouldn’t have left London, but Alice wasn’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.
“Isn’t that Haverly?” Tristan asked.
Grey opened his eyes. “That’s it.”
He’d always been fond of his uncle’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.
“Everything looks well,” he mused.
“You were expecting something ill?” Tristan sat forward to get a better look.
Cursing at himself for whetting Dare’s bottomless curiosity, Grey assumed a relaxed pose. “I wasn’t expecting anything. The invitation to visit surprised me, is all, and I’m relieved everything looks to be in order.”
“I think it’s quaint.” Alice leaned across his arm, pressing her ample bosom against him. “How far is Basingstoke, did you say?”
“I didn’t. Two miles or so.”
“And the nearest neighbors?”
“Are you planning to be social?” Tristan gave a slight grin. “Or are you scouting out the nearest female competition?”
“I am being social, something you obviously need to practice,” she complained.
“That’s what I’m attempting at this very moment, my dear.”
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 – an escape, however short-lived, from all female entanglements up to and including his demented mother, Frederica, the Duchess of Wycliffe. He hadn’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.
“Grey, aren’t you going to defend me?” Alice demanded.
He opened one eye. “It was your idea to come to Hampshire. Fend for yourself.”
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 one’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, Haverly’s butler, pulled open the carriage door.
“Your Grace,” he said in his worn, gravel-rough voice. “Welcome back to Haverly.”
“Thank you, Hobbes.” He stepped down and turned to offer Alice his hand. “We lost a coach about a mile back. You’ll need to send a smith and probably a new wheel. I left Simmons and half the servants behind with the horses.”
“I’ll see to it at once, Your Grace. I trust there were no injuries?”
“My clothes will have to be put down,” Charles said, as he climbed down from beside the driver. “Thank you so much for making me bake out in the sun. I feel like a brick.”
“You look like one,” Tristan said helpfully. “There’s always the pond.”
A look of horror crossing the dandy’s face, Charles backed toward the manor. “Just keep your distance, Dare.”
“Oh, shut up, Charles.” Lady Sylvia swished up from the rear coach. “You prattle more than anyone I know. You should have heard him all morning. Prattle, prattle, prattle.”
“Hm.” Grey turned to lead the way to the wide oak front doors of Haverly. “You weren’t recommending that Parliament be disbanded again, were you, Blumton?”
“Of course not. I only pointed out that limiting the power of the king limits the power of the country.”
Tristan opened his mouth, but Sylvia put her dainty hand over it. “No. You will not encourage him. I’ve been listening to it since we left London. Next time, I get to ride with Gr--”
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 wrong.
“Uncle Dennis,” he said, allowing the shorter man to pull him into a sound embrace. “You look well.”
“As do you, my boy. Introduce me to your friends. I know Dare, of course.”
Tristan stuck out his hand. “Thank you for the invitation, Haverly. His Grace was wasting away in London.”
“Eh?” Dennis looked up at his nephew, his brow furrowed. “Not taken ill, are you, lad?”
Only Uncle Dennis called him lad, any longer. “Hardly,” 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. “Just getting older. Uncle, allow me to present Lady Sylvia Kincaid and Miss Boswell. And the mud hen is Lord Charles Blumton.”
“Welcome to all of you,” the earl said, bowing and shaking hands. “I hope you don’t find poor old Hampshire too rustic. We’re not London, but we do have our diversions.”
“Like what?” Alice asked, eyeing Greydon from beneath her lashes.
“Well, Haverly is host to a picnic, almost a fair, in August. And Thursday, the Academy will be presenting Romeo and Juliet.”
Charles’s expression brightened. “Academy? Which Academy?”
Greydon scowled as he realized he’d landed squarely in the middle of enemy territory. “Good God. The damned Academy. I’d nearly forgotten about that blight on the landscape.”
“That’s hardly fair,” his uncle returned, gesturing them toward the front entry. “Miss Grenville’s Academy is a finishing school for young ladies of breeding, Lord Charles. It stands on Haverly land.”
“A girls’ school?” Charles looked as though he’d swallowed something bitter. “I take it then, Wycliffe, that you also disapprove of the education of females?”
Grey sidestepped his muddy companion and strolled into the manor. “I have no problem with the education of women,” he said over his shoulder. “I’ve just never seen it done properly.”
“Don’t be a beast, Wycliffe,” Lady Sylvia cooed. “I attended a finishing school.”
“And what did you learn?” he asked, scowling as Dare mumbled a curse. They should have known better than to bring it up. “Oh, yes. You learned to say whatever I want to hear. And to follow the tradition of becoming clinging, helpless--”
“So I suppose we’re not going to be attending the performance?” Tristan interrupted, following him inside.
“Only if you kill me first and drag my rotting carcass along with you.”
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