Miss Prim and the Duke of Wylde
The 13th Cynster Next Generation Novel
In Paperback, digital and audio formats
Digital ISBN: 978-1-925559-57-6
Print ISBN: 978-1-925559-58-3
Release Date: August 17, 2023
#1 New York Times bestselling author Stephanie Laurens explores what happens when Fate tosses two people who had no intention of marrying each other into the hothouse of a noble betrothal under the avid eyes of the ton.
A gentleman seeking a suitable wife is forced by Fate and unhelpful circumstance to become engaged to a lady who had no idea that in selflessly assisting him she was auditioning for that part.
In the leadup to her tenth Season, Meg Cynster—known to the ton’s eligible bachelors as Miss Prim—takes to the country to ponder the question: If not marriage, then what? She has yet to find an answer when she comes upon a supremely elegant curricle, drawn by a pair of high-spirited horses presided over by an unconscious gentleman. Others present know where he’s staying, but can’t manage the horses. With no real choice, Meg accepts the responsibility and drives the gentleman home. Unfortunately, he’s too inebriated to just leave, so she rouses him enough to help him inside.
But then others arrive, and Meg learns the gentleman is none other than Drago Helmsford, the notorious Duke of Wylde—and in order to protect her reputation, she and Drago are forced to declare that they are engaged.
Although a shocking surprise for everyone, by all measures, the match is highly desirable. Meg and Drago have no option but to allow the engagement to stand until the end of the Season, when they can quietly call it off. Consequently, they have to keep the fact that their engagement is a sham an absolute secret from everyone, including all members of their families.
Through the ensuing whirl of the Season, with all eyes focused avidly on them, they duly pretend to be an affianced couple—roles that, to their surprise, come to them remarkably easily. With every member of their families and all the powerful in society being unrelentingly encouraging, both Meg and Drago, with eyes wide open, start to consider the possibility that marrying the other might just be the answer they’d each been seeking when they’d first met.
Then accidents start happening and quickly escalate to attacks, and it becomes clear that someone is intent on preventing Meg from marrying Drago. Why is unclear, but with the threat hanging over them, the Cynsters and Helmsfords rally around to ensure Meg makes it to the altar. But even after the wedding, when Drago and Meg retreat to his estate, the attacks continue until, with their hearts and future on the line, Drago and Meg risk all in a gamble to expose the faceless villain and bring the ever-present danger to an end.
A classic historical romance laced with intrigue set in the ton’s ballrooms and drawing rooms and in the green depths of the English countryside. A Cynster Next Generation novel. A full-length historical romance of 113,000 words.
“A chance encounter for Meg Cynster and Drago, Duke of Wylde, ends up changing their lives forever. Fans of historical romance will love this passionate tale set in the English countryside and the ballrooms of London's haut ton!” Kristina B., Proofreader, Red Adept Editing
“A fine treat for fans of Regency romance!” Angela M., Copy Editor, Red Adept Editing
“When a simple deception goes badly awry, Drago and Meg may lose more than just their hearts. Dare they risk everything to save their newfound love? Fans will be delighted by the latest thrilling Cynster romance!” Irene S., Proofreader, Red Adept Editing
March 28, 1855
“I never thought that it would come to this.”
On hearing that pronouncement, Drago Helmsford, Duke of Wylde, looked up to find his close friend, Lord Harry Ferndale, heir to the Marquis of Tavistock, gazing at him through bleary eyes filled with drunken commiseration.
Drago arched a brow. “This what? That I would stand on the cusp of offering for a lady?” He snorted softly. “Given the terms of my father’s will, there was never any option other than to solicit the hand of some likely damsel.”
The two of them were seated at a table in the corner of the taproom of Benenden village’s Bull Inn, along with George, Viscount Bisley, and Thomas Hayden. The four had been firm friends from their first day at Eton and had remained inseparable through their years at Oxford and the subsequent nearly fifteen years that they’d spent inhabiting the social circles favored by the wealthy bachelors of the ton.
“At least,” George said, his words only slightly slurred, “this Alison Melwin doesn’t sound the sort to be overly demanding. To want to trim your sails, so to speak.” George squinted at Drago. “She’s a local, you say?”
Drago took another swig of the inn’s strong ale before replying, “A neighbor. Her family owns a property along the Court’s southern boundary, and of particular note”—he wagged a finger at the other three—“she’s the daughter of my aunt Edith’s childhood friend and longtime bosom-bow.”
Thomas frowned as if trying to concentrate. “The aunt you asked for help in finding a suitable bride?”
Drago nodded. “The same.” He paused, his tankard poised before his lips, then admitted, “All in all, I have to concede that in every respect, Alison is an excellent candidate for the position of my quiet, conventional, and most importantly, amenable duchess.” So saying, he drained the tankard, then lowered it to the table.
He glanced at his friends. They’d all been drinking steadily since they’d arrived at the inn several hours ago. In response to his summons, the others had driven down from London to join him in farewelling his bachelor days, and after assuaging their hunger with large servings of the inn’s game pie, they’d settled in to drown his sorrows.
In actual fact, he wasn’t all that sorrowful. Offering for Alison’s hand was simply one of those unavoidable steps he had to take as part and parcel of being the Duke of Wylde.
“I still can’t believe that your father even thought of using his will to blackmail you into marriage.” George looked far more mournful than Drago.
He lightly shrugged. “Of all men, the pater knew what he was dealing with—would be dealing with even from the grave.”
Harry nodded soberly. “He was a canny one, your pater.”
“Still,” George persisted, “leaving you to inherit the entailed properties while, after a certain date, withholding the family funds required to keep them going seems a trifle heavy-handed.” He suddenly looked worried. “I hope my old man doesn’t get wind of this and think to do the same.”
Remembering his father with genuine affection, Drago replied, “Papa saw it as his duty to ensure the succession, and he knew that, just as he had, I would avoid the Marriage Mart for as long as I possibly could. At least he gave me until my thirty-fifth birthday to do the deed.”
“Your thirty-fifth birthday that comes around this August.” As well-flown as the rest of them, Thomas clarified that point.
Harry frowned. “August is months away. You could play the field for the whole upcoming Season—”
“And risk Aunt Edith or—God forbid—m’mother deciding to let slip my rapidly approaching need of a bride?” Drago shook his head. “Thank you, but no. Can you imagine the matchmakers’ reaction? I wouldn’t be safe setting foot outside Wylde House.”
“Lord, no!” George looked suitably horrified, while Harry looked chastened.
Thomas had been staring into his empty tankard. He glanced at the others, then pointed at their likewise empty mugs. “’Nother round?”
Harry blinked myopically, then hauled out his fob watch and squinted at the face. “Sad to say, old man, but I think we’d better get on the road.”
Drago pushed his tankard away. “Given I can’t offer you beds at the Court—or at least, given Edith’s in residence, beds you’d want to avail yourselves of—you probably had better head off.”
Even Drago wasn’t staying at his nearby estate, the dukedom’s principal seat of Wylde Court. He’d driven down from London intending to spend the evening carousing with his friends, then remain overnight at the Court and offer for Alison’s hand on the morrow, only to discover that his aunt, who had arranged tomorrow’s meeting with Alison and her parents and was presumably intent on ensuring Drago performed as she hoped, had already arrived.
On driving into the Court’s stable yard, he’d been informed of her presence and had left a message redirecting his friends and headed for the small cottage in Benenden that he’d acquired years before as a local bolt hole.
Harry had driven the other two from London in his curricle. On arriving at the Court, they’d received Drago’s message and continued as directed to the Bull Inn, but as the cottage was too small to accommodate them as well as Drago and his valet and groom, all three had decided to head back to the capital that night.
Drago pushed away from the table and rose. The others followed suit, and after signaling to Morrow, the publican, to put all charges on his slate, Drago led the way out.
The evening air was crisp and clear, the temperature low enough to have their breaths fogging.
While the inn’s ostlers rushed to put Harry’s team of bays into the shafts, the four friends settled their hats on their heads and hunted in their coat pockets for gloves and pulled them on.
The ostlers led the horses and curricle out.
Drago thanked Harry, George, and Thomas for their support “at this pivotal time in my life.”
Harry blinked as if only just realizing the momentous threshold upon which Drago stood poised. “Sadly, after tomorrow, you won’t be the same man.”
Startled, Drago laughed, but even to his ears, the sound seemed hollow. “No, indeed. By noon tomorrow, I’ll be an affianced man.”
Glumly, George shook his head. “It’ll be the end of an era.”
Drago smiled slightly. “I’m only the first of us to fall.”
Accepting the reins, Harry shuddered. “Just as long as you don’t start a domino effect.”
“Lord preserve us!” Somewhat unsteadily, George thrust out his hand to Drago. “Good luck, old man. May it all go smoothly.”
“I’m sure all will be boringly predictable.” Drago shook George’s hand, then Harry’s and Thomas’s.
Awkwardly and with telltale care, the three climbed into the curricle and shuffled and sorted themselves out.
Drago shoved his gloved hands into his pockets and stepped back.
Gripping the reins, Harry glanced at him. “Sure you don’t want to clamber up? We could take the lane past your bolt hole’s front door.”
Drago smiled and shook his head. “You’ll be faster going the other way, and the cottage is only a hundred or so yards up the lane. The walk will help clear my head.”
George frowned. “Were I in your shoes, I’m not sure I’d want my head all that clear.”
Drago laughed and raised his hand in farewell.
The others whooped and waved, and Harry shook the reins and drove off, turning left through the village on their way back to London.
Drago listened to the rattle of the wheels fade, then with his hands once more in his greatcoat pockets, he paced across the intersection directly opposite the inn and set off to find his bed.
Of the four of them, he’d always had the hardest head, and despite the quantity of ale he’d consumed, his abilities were only mildly affected. Observing him now, no one was likely to realize he was, in fact, quite drunk; he’d long ago learned to master his expression and not grin like a besotted fool.
Several years ago, he’d bought the cottage he’d commandeered for the night so that a local woman recently widowed due to a tragic accident on one of the estate’s farms could have a roof over her head. Conveniently, the cottage stood on the edge of a farm the woman’s son-in-law and daughter owned, which meant that on the rare occasions Drago had need of a bolt hole, the widow could easily decamp to spend a few days with her family.
Drago had insisted the widow was doing him a service in keeping the cottage neat and the small garden cared for and had flatly refused to accept any rent. Although initially, the widow and her family had been uncomfortable with the implied charity, given their financial position compared to Drago’s, it really would have been silly to insist on paying the dukedom, and as Drago had used his bolt hole several times over the years—whenever he wished to avoid his mother and relatives at Wylde Court—all parties had come to accept the arrangement.
He walked at a slow and steady pace. With the night still and silent about him, inevitably his thoughts slid to his unavoidable life-changing appointment the next morning. Confronted with having to find a bride by August, in January, he’d bitten the bullet and asked his paternal aunt Edith for help. He hadn’t asked his mother for the simple reason that she knew him far too well. Additionally, Edith—being a Helmsford by birth—had a finely honed understanding of what the wider family would expect in Drago’s duchess.
Almost certainly, Edith had been waiting for him to ask and had immediately directed his eye toward Alison Melwin. Lady Melwin, Alison’s mother, remained one of Edith’s closest friends, yet beyond that, Drago accepted that Alison possessed most of the attributes the family and society would deem desirable in his bride.
He’d met Alison only once, a month ago at a local party hosted by the Melwins specifically for that purpose. Although he and Alison had been born mere miles apart and each had always been aware of the other’s existence, as she was twenty-four to his thirty-four, while growing up, they had rarely crossed paths. And given the circles he inhabited in town, they had never crossed paths there, either.
But Alison had, indeed, seemed everything that Edith had labeled her—quiet, willing, and sensible. Not a silly young girl expecting him to hang on her every word and constantly dance attendance on her. Being a local, Alison would know how to manage the household at Wylde Court, and as the Melwins were an old family and entrenched in the ton, presumably she would know or readily learn how to manage the reins of the London house, too.
Most importantly, when he’d managed a few words with her alone, she’d given him to understand that she was entirely willing to embark on a marriage of convenience with him.
He’d been relieved that she hadn’t been looking for love. Indeed, she’d been as clear-eyed as he in acknowledging that she wasn’t in love with him any more than he was with her.
On that basis, he believed they could rub along well enough.
His decade-long career prowling through the ton had predominantly been spent in those circles eligible young ladies did not frequent. Regardless, he had never encountered or so much as glimpsed any of that species who even remotely stirred his heart much less evoked any of the reactions that, from observing his parents’ marriage, he knew stemmed from love. Consequently, in light of his father’s demand, a sound, agreeable marriage of convenience was the best he could hope for.
As he paced along, he told himself that was the logical conclusion and he should be grateful that he’d found a suitable lady like Alison so easily.
Yet the prospect of tomorrow and the step he intended to take had settled like a lead weight on his chest.
Should he have made a greater effort, girded his loins, and stepped into the bright lights of the ton’s ballrooms and drawing rooms and actively searched for a lady capable of engaging his emotions? Yet he had no reason to believe that such a female existed, and he had only so much time. Offering for Alison was the sensible way forward.
Dragging his mind from such unhelpful retreading of the arguments, he raised his head, looked along the lane, drew in a deep breath, and walked on.
* * *
“Rise and shine, Your Grace.”
His face half buried in a pillow, Drago groaned and, raising his arm to shade his eyes, rolled onto his back. After a second or two’s effort, he managed to crack open his lids.
Maurice, Drago’s valet, had opened the curtains, and daylight seared Drago’s senses.
Wincing, he closed his eyes and mumbled, “What time is it?”
“Nine, Your Grace.” Maurice cheerily added, “You told me to wake you so you’d have plenty of time to get spruced up for your outing to claim your bride.”
Don’t remind me. “So I did.” Drago gathered his willpower. “Right, then.” Lowering his arm, he threw back the covers. “Let’s get to it.”
Maurice was busy laying out his clothes. Despite the name Maurice, which Drago strongly suspected was assumed, the valet—in his late thirties, short, stocky, and round of face—was a product of London’s East End, a fact that occasionally showed in his speech but concerned Drago not at all. Maurice had an eagle eye when it came to clothes and appearance, a talent Drago had learned to respect. If Maurice decided that one of Drago’s most severe suits, teamed with a waistcoat in silver brocade and an ivory-white silk stock, was the correct raiment in which to present himself before his prospective bride, Drago wasn’t about to argue.
Determinedly not thinking about what he would shortly be doing, he washed, then, swathed in a silk dressing gown, allowed Maurice to shave him. Maurice had taken one look at Drago’s heavy-lidded eyes and firmly taken the razor from his hand.
Once Drago was stubble-free and patting his cheeks dry, Maurice wiped the razor and carefully stowed it. “How hungry are you?”
Drago paused to consider, then replied, “I could eat a horse.”
His mouth felt as dry as the bottom of an Egyptian tomb, and his stomach was a hollow pit.
Making for the door, Maurice cast an assessing glance his way. “Hair of the dog?”
Drago grimaced. “Possibly. Let’s see how I feel once I get downstairs.”
As other than Maurice and Tisdale, his groom, he’d brought no staff to the cottage, it fell to Maurice to cook breakfast.
Although lean, Drago was tall; by anyone’s assessment, he was a large man. He also had a healthy appetite, and the dinner the previous evening, while acceptable as an inn’s dinner offering, hadn’t been all that much for someone used to multiple courses and large portions.
And drinking copious amounts of ale always left him ravenously hungry.
He dressed in the clothes Maurice had laid out, then secured the silk stock with his diamond pin. He brushed his dark hair, grateful as always to his London barber, who had the knack of making sure Drago’s dark locks always fell as they ought, even after he’d raked his fingers through the heavy mane.
After deciding he was as “spruced up” as he was likely to get, he headed for the door. The stairway was narrow; almost bouncing from one shoulder to the other, he descended with care, eventually reaching the ground floor and the small hall before the front door. He turned to the open doorway on the right and walked into the parlor, which also served as a dining room.
The windows looking onto the front garden were open, and a light, flirtatious breeze wafted in.
Drago drew in a careful breath, then walked to where a single straight-backed chair had been set at one end of the small table.
He sat and surveyed the dishes. “Eggs, bacon, sausages, and lots of toast. You’re invaluable, Maurice.”
“Thank you, Your Grace.” Maurice breezed in from the kitchen, bearing a dish of butter. “Do endeavor to remember that.” He placed the butter beside the toast and critically surveyed Drago.
Reaching for a slice of toast, Drago arched a brow. “Do I pass muster?”
After studying Drago’s hair, Maurice nodded. “You’ll do. Now, do you want coffee or something stronger?”
The pressure in Drago’s head spiked every time he allowed his gaze to drift toward the brightness outside. “Given I have to drive to Melwin Place, you’d better make it half and half.”
Maurice glanced at the window, then turned toward the kitchen. “A wise choice.”
Minutes later, he returned with a large mug filled with coffee and whisky.
Drago had made good inroads into the eggs and sausages, and the toast was almost gone. He accepted the mug, sipped, then took a long swallow. Setting the mug down, he nodded. “That should do the trick.”
“Tisdale and I were wondering whether we’re going to remove to the Court later today, after you do the deed. If not, we’ll need to go to the market in Rolvenden and get more food.” Maurice nodded at the nearly empty platters. “There’s nothing much left.”
Drago frowned. “Us repairing to the Court depends on whether Aunt Edith is still there and whether I want to avoid her.” He grimaced. “She probably will be, and I probably will. Her preening over my impending leg shackling will be insufferable.”
“So we need food.”
Drago nodded. “Get more than we need. We can leave the rest for Mrs. Kennedy in thanks for her hospitality.”
Maurice muttered something about Drago owning the damn cottage, but dutifully loaded his arms with the now-empty platters and headed for the kitchen.
Drago called after him, “Do you need more funds?”
“Still have what you gave us before we headed down here. That’s more than enough.”
Drago glanced at the small clock on the mantelpiece and raised his voice. “Tell Tisdale to put the grays to and leave them tied in the yard. I won’t be much longer.”
“Right you are. We’ll hire a gig from the inn.”
Replete, Drago drank his heavily laced coffee and, finally, shifted his gaze to the window. The sunshine outside still threatened to give him a headache, but having a full stomach definitely helped.
He sighed, drained the mug, then trudged back up the stairs. The mirror in the bedroom was small, but a duke about to propose really ought to look his best.
* * *
Margaret Cynster—Meg to all who knew her—strolled through her cousin Christopher’s fields, the woods lining the Walkhurst Road her destination.
She’d come to Kent, to Christopher’s home, Walkhurst Manor, to spend the weeks before the Season commenced by helping Christopher and his wife, Ellen, cope with the demands of their three-year-old daughter, Julia, and their one-year-old son, George, after the birth of Marcus, the newest addition to their family.
For the past two weeks, while Ellen tended Baby Marcus, Aunty Meg had proved the perfect distraction for the rambunctious toddlers.
Meg and Ellen were much the same age, and although their interests were wildly disparate—Ellen being very much a country dweller while Meg delighted in spending most of her year in London amid the circles of the haut ton—after Ellen and Christopher had married, Meg and Ellen had quickly become close friends.
And in this instance, in the weeks leading up to what would be Meg’s tenth—tenth!—Season, she’d welcomed the chance to spend time in the country away from her immediate family and friends. She needed to think about where her life was heading. After ten years of trawling through the ton searching for the right gentleman, she’d grown disillusioned, disaffected, and even—gasp!—bored.
Bored, she’d discovered, was not a state that suited her.
Yet despite having spent the past two weeks weighing up this notion and that, she was no nearer to making any decision on what she should do next—on what to do with her life if her ideal gentleman never appeared.
She was no longer sure such a gentleman existed, and if he didn’t, she needed to develop a goal beyond becoming said gentleman’s wife. To date, her entire ambition had been fixed on attaining that state, but without her ideal gentleman deigning to appear, she saw no prospect of achieving it.
She was not a naturally restful person. She needed something to do, some active role to fill. That was an aspect of her character the past ten years had made plain.
Sadly, she’d yet to define any suitable role she might make her own.
Be that as it may, that morning, with the sun beaming down, warming the air and dispelling the last memories of winter, she had ventured out on a specific quest. She often sallied forth for a ramble once the first rush of the morning was past, and Mrs. Hambledon, the manor’s cook, had asked if Meg could gather some dandelions, wild garlic, and nettles.
Meg had agreed, and Mrs. Hambledon had assured her, “You’ll find plenty of good clumps of wild garlic and nettles in the woodland bordering the road, and you’ll pass any number of dandelions in the fields along the way.”
So it had proved. As Meg passed into the cool shade of the trees, the trug swinging from her hand was half filled with dandelions, roots as well as leaves as requested.
A gentle breeze caressed her warm cheeks. As usual, her straw hat had slipped back on her head and now hung over her nape, secured by the ribbons looped about her throat.
She wended her way between the trees, following the twisting paths made by wildlife. As Mrs. Hambledon had predicted, Meg found several clumps of wild garlic and had soon harvested a goodly pile of leaves, then she moved on in search of nettles. Possibly due to the lack of sunlight deeper in the woods, there didn’t seem to be any nettles growing beneath the trees. She vaguely recalled spotting nettles in the roadside verge the last time she’d ridden to the village and made directly for the road, but between her and the verge, brambles had grown into clumps higher than her head, forcing her to detour around the prickly masses.
Rounding a massive bramble bush, she glimpsed the road through the trees ahead.
Men were darting about in the lane.
Surprised, she stopped and took in the sight of two woodsmen leaping about in the middle of the roadway as they attempted to catch the halters of a pair of magnificent grays harnessed to what was unquestionably the most elegant curricle Meg had ever seen.
She was a Cynster; she’d seen elegant curricles aplenty. Excellent horses, too, and the pair of grays also ranked highly.
Yet there was no one sitting in the curricle. No driver, no groom. No one at all.
And at any moment, one of those lovely horses was going to rear and injure itself or lash out at the woodsmen.
She recognized the men. Carter and Miller worked for Sir Humphrey Martingale on the Bigfield House estate, which lay on the other side of the road from Walkhurst Manor. Sir Humphrey was Ellen’s uncle, and her brother, Robbie, managed the estate.
Without further thought, Meg ran for the road. After leaping across the ditch some yards behind the woodsmen so as not to startle the already frightened horses, she set her basket down on the verge, then walked toward the curricle.
Carter and Miller—every bit as panicked as the horses—glanced over their shoulders and saw her.
“Miss Cynster! You want to stay away, miss. These horses—”
“I’m used to handling horses.” She spoke calmly, evenly, and continued walking forward.
As she neared the grays, both of whom were rolling their eyes, she started crooning. She might refer to horses as “smelly beasts,” but she knew more than she’d ever wanted to know about how to handle them. How to soothe and calm them.
She kept her gaze locked on the animals, catching their eyes, capturing and holding their attentions, impressing on them that she was calm and untroubled, so they could be, too.
Gradually, the horses quieted, and first one, then the other, allowed her to catch their halter and draw their head down enough to grasp the reins.
With both sets of long reins in her grasp, she stroked and patted the long noses. “There, now. How did such a pair of beauties as you get loose?” Her gaze traveled along the reins—to the figure slumped lifeless across the curricle’s seat. “Oh.” She managed—just—to keep the shock from her voice. The last thing she wanted was to set the horses panicking again, but she felt her eyes grow huge as she stared at the dark-haired gentleman. Not a muscle, not a finger, not an eyelash twitched.
“Is he dead, do you think?” one of the woodsmen whispered.
“I don’t know,” Meg heard herself whisper back.
The man—judging by the quality of his clothes, let alone his horses, he was beyond doubt a gentleman and a wealthy one at that—lay motionless, his chin sunk on his chest, his arms lax at his sides. Only his long, black-trouser-clad legs, bent with his knees wedged against the front board, were holding him in place on the leather seat.
The shoulders slumped against the seat’s back were broad, encased in a dun-colored greatcoat worn over a coat that just a glance told her hailed from Savile Row. The waistcoat, too, was top of the trees, richly embroidered without being glaring. And in the folds of silk below the man’s chin, a diamond blazed in a stray beam of sunlight.
Drinking in the vision, Meg felt strangely shocked. His face was lean with the long planes, patrician nose, and chiseled cheekbones of an aristocrat. His jaw was squarish without being aggressive, his lips, in repose, finely drawn. His brow was wide, with locks of black hair falling rakishly over the expanse, shadowing eyes well set beneath the angled slashes of black eyebrows.
His lashes were impossibly long and thick, forming black crescents on his cheeks.
Even inanimate, his was a face so outrageously handsome the sight of it literally stole her breath.
A novel reaction for her, along with the errant yet compelling thought that surely a man as beautiful as this shouldn’t simply die.
She frowned, then to herself as much as to the stunned woodsmen, murmured, “He looks too young and healthy to have died of an apoplexy.” Or indeed, any other natural cause, and there was no sign of violence anywhere.
Despite his utter stillness and a pallor she suspected was natural, there was enough color in his complexion to suggest he wasn’t dead.
Still frowning, she blew out a breath. “Let’s see.”
Reorganizing the reins as she went, she walked along the side of the curricle, then boldly mounted the steps.
The well-sprung carriage dipped with her weight, yet the man didn’t stir.
Grimly determined, she rearranged the reins, grasping them in one hand, then telling herself he couldn’t be—wouldn’t be—dead, she steeled herself, reached out, and searched for a pulse in the man’s throat, just beneath his chin.
His skin was warm to her touch, and his throat felt strong. It was also long; seeking a pulse point, she was forced to dip her fingers beneath the silk of his stock.
She slid her fingertips down the long tendon and, at last, felt the solid throb of a heartbeat.
The man’s lashes fluttered, then rose.
Dark-chocolate-brown eyes met hers.
Startled, she pulled back her hand and was about to straighten, but discovered she couldn’t seem to move.
She blinked, caught—trapped—in that mesmerizing dark-chocolate gaze.
Drago stared at the vision leaning over him.
A vision, indeed.
Curls of spun gold haloed a face of feminine perfection, of smooth cheeks and a flawless peaches-and-cream complexion. Not a classically oval face but one with a wide brow, delicately arched brown eyebrows, large—huge—summer-sky-blue eyes, and a tapered chin that held just a hint of determination.
Delighted, with his gaze, he traced her features, the pert straight nose and long eyelashes. He registered the perfect symmetry of her beauty even as her lips caught and held his attention.
Lush lips shaded the palest rose, they were the evocative shape one associated with a cherub.
Or perhaps an angel.
Have I drunk myself to death?
No. He hadn’t had that much. He was drunk but not that drunk.
Which meant he was awake, and this was real, and she was, too.
He returned his gaze to her sky-blue eyes and allowed his lips to curve into a seductively charming smile, one all but guaranteed to work on even the starchiest of ladies.
Still holding her captive with his gaze, he raised a hand and gently—very gently so as not to startle her—ran the backs of his crooked fingers down one satiny cheek. “I really would like to get to know you better.”
The slight slur edging the words, uttered in a deep, dark voice that rendered them nothing less than an outright invitation to sin, jolted Meg free of the sensual web the devil had so effortlessly cast. The stunningly effective web he’d snared her in just by looking at her with those gorgeous, fathomless, dangerous eyes.
Abruptly, she wrenched her gaze from his and straightened, registering the combined scents of coffee and whisky. “Good God!” She would have stepped back, but the curricle was only so wide. “You’re sozzled! And it’s not even noon!”
The horses shifted, and she turned to calm them. They settled, and she swung back to their owner to find him frowning faintly as if not quite understanding her reaction.
“Yes, well.” Making an obvious effort, he attempted to lever himself upright. “There’s a reason for that, I’ll have you know.”
Clinging to temper as her best defense, she gave vent to a disgusted sound. “So you did this to yourself.” She waved at the horses. “You set out driving a fabulous pair of high-steppers while thoroughly inebriated and put them as well as yourself at risk!”
Her tone had risen enough to make him wince.
Good. He deserves the sharp edge of my tongue.
She planted her hands on her hips and glared at him.
Still appearing vague and puzzled, he looked up at her, then shifted his gaze past her.
Then his lids lowered, and every vestige of returning tension drained from his long frame, and he slumped onto the seat again, this time with his head lolling against one shoulder.
Meg stared, then frowned. She reached out, gripped his shoulder, and shook him—or tried to. He was far heavier and more solid than she’d thought. She jabbed his shoulder instead. “Wake up!”
Not so much as a flicker of an eyelash.
Frowning more direfully, she debated slapping him—not lightly.
“Miss? I think he’s passed out again.”
She glanced at Carter, who’d come up to stand beside her and the carriage.
He pointed to the man’s hand where it lay relaxed, palm upward, on the edge of the seat. “See how slack his hand and fingers are?”
Meg stared at the hand. Long-fingered, narrow-palmed, the hand of a musician, it lay apparently lifeless on the leather seat.
Miller came up on the curricle’s other side. “Aye.” He nodded sagely. “Out of it, he is. Sure as eggs are eggs.”
Meg suspected they were right. Frustrated, she blew out a breath, then glanced at Miller and Carter. “Do you know who he is?”
“Oh, aye!” Carter nodded. “It’s his lordship. Heard he was back in the old Vere cottage, which is where he sometimes stays.” Carter stepped away from the curricle and pointed down the lane in the direction from which the curricle had come. “The cottage is just along there a ways, on the corner of the last lane on the right, before you get to the village road.”
Meg drew the image of a two-story cottage from her memory. “Isn’t that where Mrs. Kennedy lives?”
Miller nodded. “That’s the one. His lordship here owns the place, but she keeps it for him, so to speak.”
“I see.” If Mrs. Kennedy kept for the man, then despite current appearances, he couldn’t be all bad. Sadly, the cottage was too far away to ask the woodsmen to walk the horses and carriage—and comatose driver—home, and regardless, she wasn’t comfortable leaving the high-bred horses in their care. She sighed. “I’ll have to drive him back to the cottage.”
Neither Carter nor Miller argued.
She remembered her basket, turned and located it on the verge where she’d dropped it, and pointed to it. “Could one of you take my basket to Mrs. Hambledon at the manor and tell her that once I’ve delivered the gentleman to the cottage, I’ll walk back?”
“Pleased to, miss.” Carter saluted her and loped back to the basket.
Miller looked uncertainly at her, then at the slumped body taking up the bulk of the seat. “Can you manage, miss?”
“Perhaps if you shove him back a little more?”
She watched as Miller came around the curricle and did his best to rearrange the large body and long limbs, ultimately clearing a section of seat sufficient for her to sit.
She turned and wiggled into position. “Thank you.” Expertly, she looped the reins about her hands.
Miller looked unconvinced. “Are you sure you’ll be able to handle ’em, miss?”
“Quite sure.” Meg smiled reassuringly at Miller. “I am, after all, Demon Cynster’s daughter. Although I’m not that fond of horses, I can definitely manage them.”
Her confidence rang in her tone. Miller heard and nodded respectfully. “Right, then.” He stepped back.
“I’ll have to go up to the Bigfield House drive to turn them.” Meg dipped her head Miller’s way. “Thank you and Carter for your help.”
“Thank you, miss,” Miller called as she flicked the reins and set the horses trotting. “We’d never have managed if you hadn’t come along.”
Meg smiled to herself. Helping others always made her happy. Satisfied and fulfilled.
She glanced at the figure lying boneless beside her. “I suppose I’ll be helping you, too.” Facing forward, she grinned. “My halo will be shining.”
The horses recognized a firm and knowledgeable hand on their reins and responded accordingly. Under her guidance, the pair stepped smartly along to where the road widened at the mouth of the Bigfield House drive. She slowed the horses and executed a neat, smooth, uneventful turn.
Feeling pleased with herself, she straightened curricle and horses and set the lovely grays trotting rapidly back down the road.
Meg would never have admitted it to anyone, but she thoroughly enjoyed driving the magnificent grays south to the cottage. The curricle lived up to expectations, too, bowling along with amazing smoothness. Reluctantly resisting the temptation to prolong the drive, she turned down the narrower lane that bordered the small plot on which the two-storied Vere cottage stood.
It was a cheery country cottage with gingham curtains in the windows. The small front garden was a mass of daffodils and jonquils, their bright, bobbing heads softening the lines of the local gray stone, as did the white-painted wood of the windows and doors.
As Meg had expected, just past the cottage, an open gate gave access to a small stable yard. The yard filled the space between the rear of the cottage and a surprisingly large barn big enough to accommodate both horses and carriage.
She slowed the horses and turned them through the gate, and they obediently clopped into the yard and halted.
She looked at the barn. The door was shut. There didn’t seem to be any groom or stableman about. Certainly, no one came running, alerted by the sound of wheels and hoofbeats on the gravel.
Meg transferred her gaze to the cottage. No Mrs. Kennedy opened the rear door and came rushing to assist with her drunken employer. There was a stillness about the place that assured Meg that there truly was no one at home.
“Damn!” She looked at her still-comatose passenger. “Now what?”
Could she just leave him snoring on the seat?
She glanced at the horses. If she tied them up…
No. They would grow restless, and then who knew what they might do? They could easily injure themselves, let alone someone else.
She returned to studying their owner’s long, relaxed limbs and wide-shouldered frame. There was no possibility that she could even shift him; he would have to move under his own steam.
How to revive him? She couldn’t sit there all day, just waiting for him to rouse.
She ought to have asked Carter and Miller if they knew which lord he was. She’d dismissed the point as inconsequential at the time—she hadn’t needed to know who he was to deliver him to the cottage—but now… It would be nice to have a name to bark at him.
Instead, she used the point of one elbow to nudge him sharply. “Wake up!”
He sucked in a breath, then softly snorted. Two seconds later, his absurdly long lashes fluttered, then squinting warily, he eased up his lids.
Raising his head, he squinted at her, then his gaze went past her. Slowly, he looked around, then struggled upright. “You brought me back.”
“Carter and Miller—the woodsmen who found your horses wandering along the road without a compos mentis driver—told me you were staying here.” She glanced at the cottage, wondering if the men had got that right.
“There doesn’t seem to be anyone here.”
“My valet and groom went to Rolvenden, to the market.”
He sat fully upright and, frowning, scrubbed the fingers of one hand through his hair, disarranging the black locks thoroughly, yet when he lowered his hand, his hair appeared merely fashionably windblown.
She swallowed a humph and, in increasing dismay, stared at the cottage. “So there’s really no one here?”
“’Fraid not. And my head’s still spinning. If you’ll excuse me, I should go inside and lie down.” Before she could stop him, he swung his long legs out of the curricle and stepped onto the gravel. He stood tall, settled his coat over his shoulders, then promptly collapsed, falling back against the curricle’s side and slowly sliding down to end in a heap on the ground.
Startled, the horses shifted. Immediately, Meg gave them her attention and spent the next minute calming them again.
Exasperated, she sighed and listened, but no sound of retching reached her ears. That was better than the alternative.
Seeing no other option, she pulled on the brake, climbed down on the other side of the carriage from where its owner now lay, and playing out the reins, discovered they were long enough to tie to the hitching post outside the barn door.
That done and the horses secured, she walked around the carriage and halted, looking down at the rumpled figure now sprawled against the curricle’s wheel. His dark head was once again down, his chin sunk almost to his chest. “Are you still awake?” she demanded.
“Sadly, yes.” He raised a hand to his temple. “There’s no need to shout.”
She pressed her lips tightly together to suppress an unholy grin, then bracingly said, “Come on. You have to get up. Although I’m sorely tempted, I’m too well brought up to leave you lying there.”
A moment passed, then he raised his head and angled a dark glance up at her. “I promise you I would get up if I could. Unfortunately, for reasons of their own, my limbs aren’t cooperating.”
“The reason is probably all the whisky you’ve drunk.”
“I only had one half mug this morning. It was all the ale last night that’s to blame.”
She shook her head. Several of her male cousins turned talkative when drunk. Stupidly so. Just like this lordling, whoever he might be.
Seeing nothing for it, she heaved a theatrical sigh. “All right.” She stepped around and positioned herself in front of him. Facing him with her feet planted at what she judged to be the appropriate distance from him, she held out her hands and wriggled her fingers. “Give me your hands. Obviously, you’re a great deal heavier than I, but with the carriage behind you, we might just manage to get you on your feet.”
He focused on her hands, then sighed, too, as if her direction was a massive imposition. But obediently, albeit slowly, he sorted out his arms and legs, got his feet planted before him, then reached up and grasped her hands.
His grip was firm and cool, not tight, yet she sensed reined strength behind it.
“Right, then. On the count of three.” She braced herself. “One. Two. Three!”
She hauled with all her might, and he pushed up, using her for balance as he straightened his long legs and got his weight over his feet.
At the last moment, he swayed, and she feared he would go down again, but he staggered back and caught the curricle’s side and managed to steady himself.
Then he smiled, nearly blinding her with charm. “There!”
Blinking, she saw that he was looking absurdly pleased. Smothering a snort, she freed her hands from his and stepped back.
Carefully balancing against the curricle, he straightened to his full height, which proved to be significantly taller than she’d thought. She was used to tall men; her brothers and most of her cousins were over six foot tall, yet this lordling would, she thought, be even taller than they.
“That’s better.” He risked taking his hand from the curricle’s side to tug his exquisitely cut black coat straight, then he fixed his gaze on the cottage’s rear door. “Now, to get inside.”
He took one step, and his leg buckled. She rushed to catch him, and he lurched into her, and she staggered as well.
For an instant, they teetered, and she prayed they weren’t both going to end on the gravel. In desperation, she wrapped her arms as far around him as she could reach. “Don’t go down!”
“I’m trying not to.” His arm descended across her shoulders, and his hand wrapped about her upper arm.
For several fraught seconds, they shuffled and shifted, but then steadied, and she breathed again.
For a moment, they both rested, simply breathing and taking stock. She had her arms wrapped halfway around his lower chest, hands splayed to hold him, and one heavy arm lay over her shoulders. They seemed to have achieved stability of a sort.
“My apologies. My limbs are definitely not behaving as they ought.”
He was entirely serious and sincere.
She angled a glance at his face. “Have you ever been this drunk before?”
He appeared to trawl through his memories, then hedged, “Not that I recall.”
She swallowed an entirely inappropriate laugh. “All right. Just concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other.”
He did as ordered, and they advanced step by shuffling step toward the cottage’s rear door. When they stood on the low stoop, he braced one hand against the doorframe, allowing her to release him and open the door, which was helpfully unlocked, as most doors in the country were.
She clamped her arms about him again, and his arm settled across her shoulders. With her on his left still bracing his weight, they angled through the doorway and moved into the small kitchen.
She glanced around and saw a deal table and counters lining the walls, but nowhere to sit.
“That way.” He pointed to a narrow corridor leading toward the front of the house.
Given the width of his shoulders, negotiating the corridor without letting him go was a trial. When she attempted to ease her hold, he staggered and almost fell, and she quickly clutched him again.
Finally, they reached the small front hall.
The front door lay ahead, with open doors giving access to rooms on either side, while immediately on their left, the stairs rose steeply.
“This way.” He urged her on.
As they neared the doorways, she peered through. To the right, she glimpsed a dining table, while on the left, she saw a sitting room. Relieved, she headed that way.
As they drew level with the newel post, she glanced at his face.
He’d noticed her looking toward the sitting room and shook his head. “Only armchairs. I need to lie flat.”
She opened her lips to waspishly inform him that he would have to make do, but he gripped the newel post and, using it as a fulcrum, swung around to face the stairs, of necessity taking her with him.
Before she could react, they were stumbling up the steep flight.
It was a tight fit, and he was leaning forward, his weight and the arm across her shoulders compelling her to climb with him. “Bed’s upstairs.”
From his tone, deep and reassuring and somehow inviting, she wasn’t at all sure that he didn’t expect her to join him in it.
She would have halted where they were—midway up the steep flight—but momentum and the weight of his arm across her shoulders propelled her inexorably on.
But when they stepped onto the landing at the top of the steep flight, once more on level footing, she dug in her heels. “This,” she stated in a tone that was the definition of resolute, “is as far as I can take you.”
He looked down at her as if momentarily confused, then he blinked, and his lips—his most distracting feature—lifted in an almost-innocent smile. “Ah, yes. Propriety and all that.”
His dark gaze swept her face as if he was committing her features to memory, then he grinned a boyishly charming, tempting grin. “I must thank you for your rescue. You’ve been the opposite of a damsel in distress.”
Then his gaze locked with hers, and once again, she fell into the snare of those mesmerizing eyes.
“Such a lovely angel.” The words were a croon imbued with impossible-to-resist seductive charm.
She felt his palm and fingers brush her cheek, then slide lower to frame her jaw.
Then he was lowering his head, his lips slowly approaching hers.
She should jerk back and avoid the kiss.
She knew she should, and he gave her plenty of time to do so, yet…
Overwhelming curiosity of a type and tenor she’d never before experienced held her immobile.
Her lips throbbed with heated anticipation the like of which she’d never felt before.
She waited, breath bated, held—wanting and yearning—in the invisible net of his charm.
With their lips a bare whisker apart, he paused, then on a grateful sigh, as if understanding that permission had been granted, he closed the distance and kissed her.
Of course, she’d been kissed before—many times by multiple gentlemen—yet never had she been kissed like this.
He didn’t devour or seek to dominate or seize. Instead, his lips tempted, the exchange a medley of subtle challenge and blatant encouragement perfectly crafted to ensure she couldn’t resist—that she wouldn’t even think of resisting.
She fell into the caress as warmth spread through her, ignited purely by the simple contact between his lips and hers.
Seconds later, unable to hold back much less retreat, she raised her hands and framed his lean cheeks, and then she was kissing him.
A low growl—a deep purr in his throat—only encouraged her further.
When the tip of his tongue traced her lower lip, she boldly opened her mouth and, with a giddy abandon that was so unlike her, welcomed him in.
He wasn’t slow to take advantage. Within a minute, the exchange—entirely mutual—had teased desire to life and was steadily stoking their passions into a roaring blaze.
His hands had long ago lowered, and his arms had locked about her. She gloried in the hardness of the long frame against which she was held. Eager and sure, riding the crest of a passion she had never even guessed she possessed, she moved into him, exulting in his immediate response, in the ravenous, rapacious desire she sensed lurking behind his expertise.
The front door was thrust open.
“Drago! Where are you? If you think—” The forceful words cut off, followed by a much weaker, “Oh, my heavens!”
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