Authors: Amelia Grey
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Crispin, the seventh Duke of Hurst, stopped his horse when he crested the rise and spied something that puzzled him in the misty whorls of fading fog. There was a young girl seated on the frosty ground a short distance away.
She'd obviously heard him ride up, because she was looking in his direction. Evidently, she wasn't afraid. She wasn't scrambling away or calling to alert anyone to his presence.
His senses strained to probe the hilly area for others, but the thickets were silent and empty. The winter air was downright cold, but the lass appeared to be properly dressed for the gray, freezing morning with coat, bonnet, and gloves. From his vantage point, he guessed her to be about the age of his ten-year-old sister.
But where were the girl's chaperones?
He kneed the mare forward and continued down the slope, searching the spindly growth of barren scrub trees and brush as the animal picked her way along the stony terrain. There wasn't another soul in sight that he could see, but surely someone was just over the next knoll. It couldn't be much more than an hour past daybreak and the girl wouldn't be without a companion.
Crispin hadn't been to his uncle's estate since he was a lad, so he wasn't familiar with the landscape or the location of the nearest house. He was here because the Duke of Drakestone had invited him to a Christmas ball, as a courtesy, Crispin was sure. Nevertheless, and much to his mother's disappointment, he'd decided to forgo Christmas Day church, the roasted goose and plum pudding dinner, and all the festivities with his mother, her husband, and their six children in favor of a quiet, restful holiday. Something Crispin never experienced when he was with his large family.
Since he'd missed the Season in London, he was looking forward to attending the many Christmastide house parties he'd been invited to throughout the countryside. He had all faith that the one at Drakestone would be a lavish affair of dining, wines, a late-night card game or two, and many beautiful young ladies to enjoy.
Not wanting the snorting horse to frighten the girl, Crispin dismounted about twenty-five feet away from her. He left the mare and approached the girl, who hadn't taken her attention off him since he first spotted her.
If there was one thing he knew, it was how to talk to children. Even though he'd been a duke since before he was born, his mother had never treated him differently from the rest of her children when he was at home and he never acted differently, either. Crispin had always been a hellion when at Eton and Oxford, but when he was home he enjoyed being just a big brother to the four girls and two boys. After spending the better part of the year traveling through America with them, he was ready to be on his own again. And since his mother had made a complete recovery from her malady shortly after he arrived in Baltimore, there was no guilt in missing Christmastide at Hurst.
His boots crunched on silvery patches of hardened dew as he neared the girl. She stared up at him with crystal-clear light blue eyes that almost seemed too big for her small face. The blustery wind had chapped her cherub cheeks and button nose. Both her legs were stretched out in front of her and, at a glance, he saw that her high-top leather boots were expensively made. The fabric and stitching of her dark blue coat and bonnet were of the highest quality. She wasn't a servant's offspring, he was sure.
Approaching her cautiously, he asked, “Are you alone?”
“Not anymore,” she said confidently. “You're here.”
Crispin hadn't expected such a cheeky answer from one so young. His eyes narrowed. “Does anyone know you're out here?”
A mischievous smile spread across her face and she said, “Well, you do.”
“All right, Miss Priss,” he conceded to her impertinent answer, stopping not far from her. “So I do. Are you lost?”
She shook her head. “My name's not Priss, and I'm not lost. I know where I am; do you?”
Crispin chuckled. Her humor was advanced well past her age. “Yes, I'm right here with you. So what's your name?”
“Sybil. What's yours?”
“Crispin,” he answered, and took in their surroundings again. He saw an overturned basket with cuttings of mistletoe, ivy, and red holly berries scattered all around it. That's when he noticed she sat under a small tree that still had plenty of mistletoe left in its branches.
All at once concern pricked him and he said, “You didn't fall out of that tree, did you?”
She studied his face intently for a moment. He had a feeling she was trying to decide whether to tell him the truth. Finally, she expelled an annoyed huff of warm breath into the frosty air and nodded.
Crispin knelt in front of her. “Are you hurt?”
“It's my ankle,” she said. “I can't stand on it. My knee hurts, too.” She gently placed her small hand on top of her knee. “Especially when I try to move it.”
he thought. The first thing he should have asked was if she was hurt. And he would have if she'd been crying like his sisters would be if one of them had fallen out of a tree.
“Do you mind if I take hold your leg and look at it?” he asked, crouching closer to her.
She shook her head again. “But be careful.”
“I promise,” he answered, knowing that promises were very important to children.
He carefully slid his hand under her calf and picked up her leg, trying not to bend her knee or brush her ankle. She flinched noticeably but didn't make a sound. Because of her high-top boots, he couldn't tell if there was swelling in her ankle, but beneath the flesh-colored stockings she wore the knee was already puffy. Her boots didn't look to be laced too tight, but to be safe he should probably loosen them and get her home fast so they could get the boot off.
“Louisa is going to be cross with me,” Sybil mumbled as she looked down at her leg.
Crispin saw the first crack in the young girl's strong demeanor. He didn't know who Louisa was, but he was fairly certain that what Sybil said was true.
Not wanting to upset the girl further, he offered, “Maybe not. I don't think anything is broken. You aren't crying,” he added more to himself than to her as he carefully untied the strings in her boots.
She gave him a smoldering expression of defiance and crossed her hands over her chest. “I don't cry,” she stated firmly. “Crying is for babies.”
“I stand corrected, Miss Sybil. So Louisa doesn't know you slipped out of the house this morning before anyone was awake to come cut berries and mistletoe?”
“She told me not to, but I didn't listen. I wanted to surprise her and decorate the house for Christmas.”
“You're getting an early start with that. Christmas is still over two weeks away.”
Sybil wrinkled her nose. “I know. She was right, but I didn't want to wait.”
He glanced over at her small gathering of clippings again. “It looks like you have plenty and you need to get home. Why don't I carry you over to my horse and sit you in the saddle. Then I'll come back, pick up your basket, and walk you home.”
“All right, but be careful,” she said again. “And don't bump my knee.”
“I'll take it slow and do my best not to.” He cautiously hooked one arm under her bottom and the other around her shoulders and lifted her up. He felt her flinch again. “How's that?” he asked, and started walking toward the horse. “Are you doing all right?”
She nodded and slid one small arm around the back of his neck and held on to him tightly.
“You're not afraid of horses, are you?” he asked, thinking it best he keep her talking.
“Of course not. I've been riding almost every day since the beginning of summer.”
“Are you staying at Drakestone?”
“Yes. I like it much better here than where we lived in London.”
“I like the country better, too,” he agreed.
“What's the horse's name?” she asked.
Crispin had no idea. He'd just arrived at his uncle's house late yesterday. He'd awakened early and decided the first thing he wanted to do was take a long ride. Later he planned to go hunting, maybe do some fishing.
“You know,” he said, “I don't think she has a name. What would you suggest if she were your horse?”
“She's the color of cinnamon.”
“That's a good name. We'll call her Cinnamon.”
“No,” Sybil said thoughtfully. “I was thinking maybe we should call her Spice.”
He smiled at the little girl who already had a mind of her own. She would be a female to be reckoned with one day.
“Spice it is,” he said. “You know, you're a clever little girl.”
“I'm not little. Bonnie is little. I'm ten.”
“And who is Bonnie?” He lifted Sybil higher to place her on to the saddle.
“My sister and sheâ”
All of a sudden Sybil let out an ear-piercing scream.
Crispin's heart lurched and he froze at the sound. “What's wrong?”
“It's my foot,” she cried.
He looked down. The boot on her injured foot had somehow caught in the stirrup and was twisted.
Crispin swore under his breath. In his hurry to fit her bottom in the saddle so he could turn her loose and untangle her foot, he bumped her knee and she cried out again, saying, “No, don't. Stop.”
“Hellfire,” he whispered, delicately trying to dislodge her foot without touching her ankle or her knee again.
All at once, out of the corner of his eye, he caught a glimpse of someone easing up behind him. Before he could react, something came down on the side of his head and face. Something sharp scraped the skin below the corner of his eye, searing him with pain.
“Leave my sister alone, you beast!” a feminine voice yelled as he was struck again before he freed Sybil's foot. “Get away from her!”
Crispin whirled to see a beautiful, but an angry-hot, blue gaze fixed on him. He threw up his arm in time to ward off the object that was coming at him for a third time.
“What the devil is wrong with you?” he said, grabbing a firm hold on the small flower container the young lady had turned into a weapon.