Authors: Lavinia Kent
Middleham, England, June 1821
ho covers a cock?” The voice whispered through the darkness. “I’ve never even dreamed of such a thing. Who does he think he is to make such demands?”
Mark lifted his head away from the rough wood wall of the stable. Retreating here had been the one way to avoid the unending wailing that had pervaded the inn. He normally didn’t mind children, but the steady crying echoing since his arrival had been mind numbing. Sleep had eluded him since his uncle’s death six weeks ago, but this noise threatened even what little rest he normally managed. Retreating to the stables had been his one hope of closing his eyes in peace for even a few minutes. The smell of the horses was far easier to bear than the noise.
“I can’t even imagine how you’d put a hood on the creature. Do you suppose you just cover the head or does one have to cover the whole thing?” The soft voice drew closer.
It was distinctly husky, distinctly feminine, and definitely an improvement over the yowling of the infant.
He peered into the darkness of the yard. A narrow silhouette drew closer. Her soft patter continued. Whom was she addressing? And what was this nonsense about covering a cock? A slow smile spread across his face as he slowly imagined what she must be talking about.
A young woman. A dark stable yard. Plenty of fresh, clean straw.
There could be only one possible explanation.
And covering the whole thing—that brought quite the picture to his mind.
Staring more closely at the silhouette, he tried to determine her proportions. If he wasn’t going to be able to sleep, perhaps he should be seeking some other form of entertainment. She looked well proportioned enough—but not too slim. It was hard to tell under the flowing cloak. What was she trying to hide wearing a cloak in this heat?
The voice still contained the soft wispiness of youth. And her walk . . . There could be only one explanation for that wide-hipped sway—only one type of woman practiced that stride.
“Hooding the cock . . . and babies. The man clearly doesn’t like babies. It’s all just too much to think about. And where does it leave me? Traipsing about the yard when I should be tucked in my own bed. Mrs. Wattington was displeased enough to pay for a second chamber and now I don’t even get to use it.”
Mark stepped partially out of the shadows and waited for her to become aware of his presence. He’d be all too delighted to let her know that his cock didn’t need any hooding. Hopefully her face was as agreeable as her voice. Its low huskiness was causing distinct stirrings in his lower body. He hadn’t taken his pleasure in the weeks since his uncle’s death.
He stepped forward. “You shouldn’t be alone out here at this hour.”
Her head jerked up, her whole body tensing. There was a sharp intake of breath. Giving herself a little shake, she stepped forward. She peered into the darkness, her eyes gleaming in the moonlight.
She was taller than he’d realized. She must have been hunched over.
Shadows still hid most of her face, but her eyes squinted, and he could tell she was trying to see him in the dim light.
She paused, but then answered carefully, with only the slightest quaver to betray her nerves. “He told me I wouldn’t be alone.”
That was strange. “Who told you?”
She paused again and he could almost hear her thoughts forming, see her seeking reassurance. “The duke’s man.”
Bloody hell. That was all he needed. Mark felt his desire wilt. It was bad enough Divers and the other servants wouldn’t let him pull on his own pants, but this was too much—sending a woman to him. Had they counted how long it had been? There were some things a man wanted to do on his own, and choosing his own woman was one of them. It was bad enough Divers mentioning his need to marry at least once a day.
“I don’t know what they told you,” he began. “But I assure you that my cock needs no hooding.” Were they that afraid that he’d catch some disease—or did they think he’d picked up something in his army days? That was more likely. They’d not want word out that the mighty Duke of Strattington was spreading around the nasties. He wasn’t having any part of it.
“Oh, then you are the one?” Her shoulders relaxed and she stepped forward. “I did think it was odd to cover the cock, but are you sure you won’t get in trouble if you don’t? The man sounded very firm that it must be done. He said the duke would be most displeased if it wasn’t.” She moved closer, still squinting to see his features.
She smelled of powder and something else—something soft, almost milky. He couldn’t decide if it was arousing or not. It was certainly not a smell he associated with doxies, but then—he looked about the stable yard—there probably had not been much choice in the hamlet. In fact, he was surprised his men had managed to find one at all. Perhaps they’d sent for one. He wouldn’t put anything past Divers.
He wished she’d open her cloak. It was hard to determine much when she was swaddled up like an infant. He wasn’t about to fall in with his servants’ plans, but it would be nice to think they believed he had some taste and standards. They didn’t think he had many—not like those his uncle and cousin had demonstrated. He never knew which coat was correct or which bottle of wine to request. And the manor house—he would never have thought to decorate it in the fashion they’d chosen. Simple, strong furniture was his preference, a good chair a man could sprawl in—not that dukes were allowed to sprawl.
He dropped his gaze back to the woman. Would she be simple or overly ornate?
As if in response to his thoughts, the moon suddenly eased from behind the clouds, spreading a gentle light across the stable yard.
Candle flames. Her hair was like candle flames.
She raised her face to him, the light outlining features as fine as any angel’s, her skin as clear as—
He needed more sleep. There was no other possible reason for the multitude of words that sprang to his mind as he stared down at her. “What’s your name?” His question was more abrupt than he’d intended.
“Isabell—” She swallowed the remainder of the word, still nervous. “I mean Miss Smith. My name is Miss Smith.”
He shouldn’t even have asked. Women never answered honestly. “Not something more creative, something French, perhaps?”
rench?” Isabella tried to keep the fear and weariness from her voice as she spoke. Her brain must be quite muddled, for nothing the man said was making sense. Little Joey’s wailing and her own worries had left her nearly witless—why else had she given her true name? “Why would I be called something French? I am a good English girl.”
“Isabelle is lovely, but I’d always been told a woman could make more money by being French. Are you sure it’s not Yvette? I’ve always had good luck with Yvettes. Or maybe Mimi? I could be quite fond of a Mimi.”
He really must be mad, or else she was so tired that her ears no longer worked. She should be more afraid, but that would have required more effort than she had strength left. It was two days since she’d seen the man in the blue coat. Perhaps he had not realized she had left Appleby. No one would believe she would willingly head for London. No, that would be too simple. Her followers were still about, just better hidden.
She tried to peer into the darkness again. If only she could see the man’s face maybe she would know if she’d ever seen him before.
“Not Mimi? How about Colette?” He kept his banter going.
Colette? She was definitely not a Colette. Perhaps he thought she was a lady’s maid. Some of them pretended to be French. She cuddled Joey closer to her chest. If he started to yell again she’d scream like a banshee herself. “No, it’s Miss Smith, plain Miss Smith. And it’s Isabella, not Isabelle.” She should not have said the last—particularly when her pursuers might be so close—but the words slipped out before she could bite them back.
“I suppose that will have to do then. Why don’t you take off your cloak?”
She certainly didn’t need the cloak, but it offered a sense of security and kept Joey shrouded in darkness. It was staying right where it was.
If only she could see his face—she didn’t think she knew him—or that he knew her. She’d never been acquainted with the Duke of Strattington’s household. The man sounded well-bred, but there was clearly something wrong with him. Would the duke’s men have sent her out to walk with a lunatic? It truly was tempting to scream along with Joey next time he started up. First, the duke’s man had pounded on her door, waking Joey just as he’d finally begun to drift off to sleep. Second, he’d demanded that she take the baby out to the stable yard so he couldn’t be heard. Third, he’d given some long story about how she’d be safe because he’d sent a man out to put a hood on the rooster so it wouldn’t crow and wake the duke in the morning.
She began to sway from side to side again, trying to keep her small charge quiet. She didn’t really wish either of them to begin screaming. It would require too much energy. This whole mess was sheer nonsense, the duke’s sheer nonsense. “No” was all she said.
“No? Didn’t they tell you to be more agreeable?” His voice became gruff.
“All they said was I didn’t need to worry because there was a man out here hooding the cock and that he’d be sure I was safe. Have you ever heard such tomfoolery?”
“So you don’t require a hood for the cock?” He sounded relieved.
Her shoulders ached. Her feet were sore. She hadn’t slept since four-thirty this morning—or was it yesterday morning? It must be after midnight, probably after one, maybe even two. “I must admit it would be nice if he was hooded; I could just go to sleep and not have to worry, but it’s rarely the cock that wakes me.”
Isabella rubbed her chin over Joey’s downy curls. He was sure to wake her before the first ray of sun eased past the horizon. Ever since his gums had turned red and the drooling had progressed he’d been up long before morning light. She glanced down at the top of his head, peeking out from under her cloak. He was a dear thing—and such a distraction from her own problems. It wasn’t his fault that his gums were sore. A new tooth poking through was reason for anyone to cry.
As if sensing her glance Joey tilted his head up and stared at her from eyes she knew were large and blue. The boy was her one comfort in this whole unending mess. The light was dim enough to conceal the brown flecks that had begun to appear in them this past week. His mother would be sorry. Mrs. Wattington was so hoping for a blue-eyed, blond angel, and it didn’t seem likely that little Joey was going to comply.
Placing her lips against the soft, dark fuzz of his hair, Isabella hummed softly. Another minute and he’d be asleep and she could return to the inn and try to take her own rest. At least Mrs. Wattington was not an early riser. The party would not leave the inn before ten-thirty or eleven at the earliest. It made for short days of travel, but with Joey involved, that was for the best. The poor lad was not a good traveler even when his gums were not swollen.
His eyelids drifted down.
Isabella added a sway to her bob, and walked forward again. He was almost there.
He gave the mild sigh that indicated sleep was truly upon him. His tiny fist kneaded against her throat as his body went limp. Once more across the stable yard and she’d be able to head back. She counted each step slowly, waiting for some small sign that he was truly asleep.
Suppressing her own sigh, she fought the urge to roll her shoulders back. All she wanted was to put Joey down and to close her own eyes. They ached from the long hours she had forced them open. One more second and she’d be free to seek the safety of her own bed. One more second and. . .
A loud, impatient cough came from a foot away.
Damnation. She’d forgotten the man. Her brain was truly not working as it should. It had been months—if not years—since she’d let her guard down, and now she couldn’t even remember the stranger she was standing next to.
Joey opened his eyes, stared at her, and scrunched up his face. Her whole body tensed as his mouth quivered and then the wail began.
ark’s mind was still stuck on her not being awakened by the cock. If she was in his bed he had a feeling that was just what would be waking her. Images of her red-gold hair spread across his pillow filled his mind. He could feel the soft curve of her buttocks pressed tight against him. His fingers ached to pull the supple curve of her waist toward him. He closed his eyes, letting the picture form. Maybe he’d keep her, even if his men had found her. There surely must be worse things.
He opened his eyes.
And. . .
The damn girl had passed him and was walking away. She was engaged in that hip-rolling walk again, though. She must mean him to follow. He was having second thoughts about the stable and the straw, however. He’d engaged in enough such encounters during his army days to know that straw was never as comfortable as one would suppose. It had an annoying habit of sticking one at just the wrong moment.
Should he follow? She’d begun to hum and he’d almost swear that she’d forgotten his existence. Probably she practiced some feminine wile designed to send him into hot pursuit. She evidently did not know that dukes were never required to pursue. No, they had men to bring them their prey. He snorted softly.
She didn’t even turn her head.
This was not the way he intended to play the game.
He coughed loudly.
Her neck stiffened.
Her head turned toward him. It should have been too dark to see, but there was no mistaking either her despair or her glare. Her head fell forward again as if staring down at her own breasts.
And then the noise began. A scream filled the yard, echoing off the cobblestones and beating against his ears.
What kind of doxy came with a baby?
“Now you’ve done it.” If her voice had sounded young and sweet before, now it echoed with tones he hadn’t heard since the schoolroom.
It was all he could do not to drop his head and murmur, “Yes, ma’am.”
And the baby. As she turned to face him there was no mistaking what lay cradled against her chest, what had caused her to hunch before. The wailing was coming from her breast. A small, angry red fist shook itself loose of the cloak and waved frantically through the air.