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Only a man dedicated to duty travelled to Yorkshire in January. Hunkered against the cold, high on his curricle, Charles Henry Beltane Mountford, Marquis of Tonbridge, couldn't miss the irony in his father's proud words. What choice was there for Charlie, other than duty, if Robert was to be accepted back into the family? If he was found. No. Not if. When he was found.
Face stinging and ears buffeted by the wind, he lifted his gaze from the road to the leaden sky and bleak stretch of moors ahead. Three years and not one word from his wayward twin. While on some deep level, he knew his brother hadn't come to physical harm, every time he recalled Robert's face as he left, Charlie's gut twisted with guilt.
He should not have said what he did, imposed his own sense of duty on his brother. They might look alike, but there the similarities ended. Their lives had followed different paths and each had their own roles to play.
Finally, after three years of arguing and pleading, he had sold his soul to bring his brother home. He would visit Lady Allison and begin the courtship his father demanded. The weight of duty settled more heavily on his shoulders. The chill in his chest spread outwards.
Damnation, what in Hades was the matter with him? Lady Allison was a modestly behaved, perfectly acceptable, young woman of good family. She'd make a fine duchess. Marriage was a small sacrifice to bring Robert home and banish the sadness from his mother's face. Sadness he'd helped cause.
He urged his tired team over the brow of the hill, eager to reach the inn at Skepton before dark.
What the hell? A phaeton. Sideways on. Blocking the road. Its wheels hung over the left-hand ditch, its horses rearing and out of control. Coolly, Charlie pulled his ribbons hard right. The team plunged. The curricle tilted on one wheel, dropped and swung parallel to the obstruction. It halted inches from catastrophe, inches from a slight young man in a caped driving coat bent over the traces of the panicked animals of the other equipage, unaware of the danger.
Damn. What a mess. Charlie leaped down. Nowhere to tie his horses. He clenched the bridle in his fist. 'Need help?' he yelled against the wind.
The young man spun around. 'By gum, you scared me.'
Not a man. A woman. Charlie stared, felt his jaw drop and could do nothing to stop it. Her eyes were bright blue, all the more startling beneath jet brows. Her cheeks were pink from the wind and black ropes of hair flew around her oval face in disgraceful disorder.
A voice in his head said perfect.
Her arched brows drew together, creasing the white high forehead. 'Don't just stand there, you gormless lump. If you've a knife, help me cut the bloody traces.' She hopped over the poles and began sawing at the leathers on the other side with what looked like little more than a penknife.
Charlie snapped his mouth shut, pulled the dagger from the top of his boot and slashed the traces on his side. 'Here, use this.' He passed her his knife, handle first.
She grabbed it, cut the last strap and proceeded to untangle the horse's legs with very little care for life and limb.
Charlie grabbed the bridle of her horses while hanging on to his own.
The young woman straightened. She was tall, he realised, her bright sapphire eyes level with his mouth. 'Thank you.' She dragged strands of hair back from her face and grinned. 'The damned axle snapped. I must have been going too fast.'
Another Letty Lade, with her coachman-style language. 'You were lucky I managed to stop.' He glanced around. 'Where is your groom?' No gently bred female travelled alone.
'Pshaw.' She waved a dismissive hand. 'I only went to Skep-ton. I don't need a groom for such a short journey.'
Reckless, as well as a menace on the road. 'It seems on this occasion you do.' He huffed out a breath. He couldn't leave her stranded on the side of the road with night falling. 'A broken axle, you say?' It might be a strap, in which case he might be able to fix it. 'Hold the horses for a moment, please.'
With a confidence in her abilities he didn't usually feel around females, he left her holding the horses and went to the back of her carriage. He crouched down beside the wheel and parted the long yellowed grass on the verge.
Blast. No fixing that. The axle had snapped clean in two near the offside wheel. She must have hit the verge at speed to do so much damage.
He returned to her. 'No hope of a makeshift repair, I'm afraid. I'll drive you home.'
'That's reet kind of you,' she said, her Yorkshire accent stronger than ever. Then she smiled.
It was as if he'd looked straight at the sun. The smile on her lips warmed him from the inside out. Lovely.
A distraction he did not need.
He glared at her. 'Where do you live?' His tone sounded begrudging. And so it should. The careless wench could have killed them both, or damaged some very fine horses. She'd been lucky. And she should not be driving around the countryside without a groom.
Her smile disappeared. She cocked her head on one side. 'No need to trouble. I'll ride.' She jerked her chin towards her team.
'One is lame. And the other is so nervous, it is sweating and likely to bolt. It is my duty to see you safely home.'
And his pleasure, apparently, from the stirring in his blood.
He looked up at the sky, took in the fading light. He'd be finding his way to Skepton in the dark if they didn't get started. 'I insist.'
'Do you, by gum?' She laughed, probably at the displeasure on his face. 'I'll not deny you your way, if you'll tie these beasts on behind.'
Kind of her to oblige him.
Leaving her with his horses, grateful they were tired enough not to protest a stranger's hand, he led her team to the back of the curricle and jury-rigged a leading string.
Returning to the girl, he shouted over the rising wind, 'I'm going to push your vehicle further off the road.'
He strode to her wrecked equipage, put his shoulder to the footboard and pushed. The phaeton, already teetering on the brink of the shallow ditch, slid down the bank, its poles tilted to the sky. No one would run into it in the dark. 'Strong lad,' she yelled.
Good God, he almost felt like preening. He suppressed an urge to grin, climbed up on to his box and steadied his team. The perfectly matched bays shifted restlessly. Probably feeling the chill, as well as the panic of the other horses.
'Can you climb up by yourself?' he asked, controlling the beasts through the reins.
She hopped up nimbly. He caught a brief glimpse of sensible leather ankle boots and a silk stocking-clad calf amid the fur lining her driving coat before she settled herself on the seat.
A very neatly turned calf, slender and sweetly curved.
Bloody hell. 'Which way?'
'You'll have to turn around. I was on my way home from Skepton.'
Skepton was at least five miles on. A mill town. Not a place a respectable female went without a groom. Just what sort of woman was she? Not gently bred obviously, despite the fine clothes. Apparently, he was soon to find out. He manoeuvred his carriage around in the road, the prospect of a warm fire any time soon receding.
He cast her a sidelong glance. She was as lovely in profile as she was full face. She had a small straight nose and full kissable lips. If Robert was in his place, he'd be enjoying himself by now, making love to her.
But he, Charlie, was a dull dog according to his last mistress. A prosy bore. Robert's parting shot rang in his ears. Try to have a bit of fun, for once.
That was all right for Robert. He wasn't the ducal heir with hundreds of people relying on his every decision. Hades, the last time he'd done as he pleased it had ended in disaster. For everyone, including Robert. Never again.
He'd do well to keep this woman firmly at a distance.
Mindful of the lame horse following behind, Charlie walked his team. He raised his voice to be heard over the wind's howl. 'As travelling companions, I believe introductions are in order. Tonbridge, at your service.'
'Honor Meredith Draycott,' she said. 'Call me Merry. Thank you for stopping.'
As if he'd had a choice.
'Tonbridge,' she said. 'That's a place.'
He felt slightly affronted, as if she'd accused him of lying. 'It is also my name.'
She considered this in silence for a second, perhaps two. 'You are an of.'
He blinked. 'Of?'
'Something of Tonbridge. Duke or earl or some such.' He grinned. Couldn't help it. 'Marquis of,' he said.
The first thing she'd said that hadn't surprised him, he realised. Which in and of itself was surprising. 'What are you doing in these parts?' she asked. 'I'm going to Durn.'
'Mountford's estate. Oh, you are that marquis. You still have a long way to go.'
'I do. I plan to put up in Skepton for the night.'
They reached the top of hill and the road flattened out. The clouds seemed closer to earth up here, the wind stronger, more raw, more determined to find a way beneath his coat.
She inhaled deeply. 'It's going to snow.'
Charlie glanced up at the sky. The clouds looked no more threatening than they had when he set out earlier in the day. 'How can you tell?'
'I've lived on these moors all my life. I can smell it.'
He tried not to smile. He must not have succeeded because she huffed. 'You'll see,' she said. 'I can smell when it's going to rain, too, or feel it on my skin. You have to feel the weather or you can get into trouble out here on the moors.'
He chuckled under his breath. 'Like running off the road?'
'That was not my fault,' she said haughtily. She glanced back over her shoulder at her horses. 'I think his limp is getting worse.'
Charlie didn't much fancy leaving the horse out here, but he might be forced to do so if the animal became too lame to walk. He slowed his team down a fraction. 'How much further?'
'Two miles. Turn right at the crossroads.'
At this rate it was going to be midnight before he reached the next town. Blasted woman wandering around the countryside alone.
'You can leave me at the corner,' she said.
Had she read his mind? More likely she'd seen the dis-gruntlement on his face. Clearly, he needed to be more careful about letting his thoughts show. 'I will see you to your door, Miss Draycott.'
'Pigheaded man,' she muttered.
Definitely not a lady. Most likely bourgeoisie, with lots of money and no refinement.
As they turned at the crossroads, white flakes drifted down and settled on the horses' backs where they melted and on Charlie's coat where they did not.
'See,' she said.
He shot her a glance and realised that she didn't look all that happy about being proved right. 'Should we expect a significant amount?'
She shrugged. 'Up here on the high moors? Like as not. The wind will drift it, too.'
Hardly comforting. The few flakes turned into a flurry, and pretty soon he was having trouble making out the road at all. Only the roughness at the verge gave him any clue he was still on track since there were no trees or hedges. Even that faint guide wouldn't last long. There was already a half-inch of pure white blanketing everything in sight. In the growing dusk, he was beginning not to trust his vision.
She gave a shiver and hunched deeper in her coat.
The cold was biting at his toes and fingers, too. If it came to a choice between the lame horse and the two people in the carriage, he was going to have to choose the people, even if he valued the horses more.
'There,' she said, pointing.
A brief break in the wind allowed him to see the outline of a square lump of a house. A monstrous ugly house. Not what he'd been expecting. Though he should have, given the expensive clothes, the fashionable phaeton and the mode of speech.
'Good,' he said. He glanced back. The lame horse didn't seem any worse though it made him wince to see how the animal favoured his right front leg. 'I assume you have someone who can care for that animal?'
'Yes.' She turned in her seat, her knees bumping slightly against his and sending every nerve in his body jangling.
Her eyes widened as if she, too, felt the shock.
It was the cold. It couldn't be anything else.
'You will stay the night, of course,' she said.
He opened his mouth to refuse.
'Don't be an ass,' she said. 'You won't find your way back to the main road.'
He raised his gaze. All sign of the house was gone. The snow was blowing in his face and it seemed a whole lot darker than it had a minute or two before.
'It looks as if we will not find your house after all.'
'Let the horses have their heads. They will keep to the road. Since I'm expected, someone is sure to be waiting at the gate with a lantern.'
They should not have let her drive out alone, and he intended to tell them so, but he did as she suggested. It felt odd, handing control of their lives to a couple of dumb beasts, but their ears pricked forwards as if they knew where they were going when he let the reins hang slack. After only a minute or two, he saw a light swinging ahead of them, a faint twinkle rocking back and forth. Within moments a wizened man in a coachman's caped coat was leading them between the shadowy forms of a pillared gate. They rounded a turn in the drive and more lights glowed through the swirling snow. They pulled up at a magnificent portico.
Two more men rushed out of the dark with lanterns.
'We'll see to the horses,' the coachman bellowed over the wind. 'Get yourselves inside afore ye perish, Miss Draycott.'
One of the grooms helped her down.
Charlie jumped down on his side.
'This way,' Miss Draycott called, hurrying up the steps.
Charlie followed. The blast of heat as the front door opened let him know just how cold he'd become.
Merry stripped off her coat and handed it to Gribble, whose smile expressed his relief.
'We were beginning to worry,' he said.
'Gribble, this is the Marquis of Tonbridge.' She gestured towards the stern dark man who was looking around him with narrowed eyes. She suppressed a chuckle. Grandfather's idea of the style of a wealthy industrialist was a sight to behold. 'My rescuer will need a room for the night.'