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Rules to Catch a Devilish Duke
By Suzanne Enoch
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2012 Suzanne Enoch
All rights reserved.
There were some pieces of advice, Sophia White reflected as she clung to the overturned coach's wheel in the middle of the half-frozen river Aire, that one should simply not ignore. Heaven knew she'd been warned that this particular journey was a poor idea, and at the moment she could certainly attest to the fact that her friends had been correct about that.
Above her on the partly submerged left-hand side and now roof of the mail coach, the driver seemed far more interested in retrieving satchels of correspondence than in the dozen people splashing about around him. "Stop that and give me your hand," she ordered, the rush of the cold water leaving her breathless.
"I already lost the horses and the Christmas turkeys," the driver grunted, his voice thready through the wind and blowing snow. "If I lose the mail, it'll be my job."
"But you can lose your passengers?"
"If I was you, miss, I'd stop arguing and swim to shore like the others. It ain't that deep."
Shivering, Sophia opened her mouth to protest that the top — or side — of the coach was much closer than the shore, but a whipped-up wave of water poured into her lungs. Coughing, she decided that the coachman's advice fell into the "should be followed" category. And since she'd missed her chance to listen to her employer and all her friends who'd told her not to journey to Yorkshire in the middle of December when she already had an obligation in Cornwall in mid-January, this time she needed to pay attention.
Her legs were numb, but with a deep breath she pushed off from the coach and began a half-swimming walk to the nearest shore. Chunks of ice dislodged by the coach's demise and the swift current pushed at her, sending her flailing toward the solid section of ice beyond. Most of the men were already on shore; evidently chivalry didn't include fishing freezing women out of chest-deep water during a snowstorm.
Abruptly beginning to worry that the water would shove her under the jagged-edged ice and drown her, Sophia clenched her chattering teeth, hiked her dragging, tangled skirts up around her hips, and pushed forward. A drowned turkey bumped into her bare thighs, making her lose her footing. Her shoe lodged into a pile of tumbled rocks, and with a curse she stepped out of it. Her next footstep, though, found the bottom missing, and she went down.
Icy water closed over her head. The slight amusement she'd felt earlier at the pure absurdity of the moment vanished along with her air. Oh, she should have stayed in London. She should have listened to Lady Haybury when that wise woman had told her she would find more trouble than welcome in York. She knew that the Duke of Greaves had only invited her to a holiday party because he liked to make a stir; asking to have the Duke of Hennessy's bastard daughter in attendance wasn't an act of kindness. But a chance to see an old friend, to experience one last, magnificent holiday, would have been worth it — though her plans would hardly matter if she drowned.
Someone grabbed her shoulder and hauled her upright. Sophia gasped air into her lungs, her drenched hair draping across her face. She seized onto the arm that had caught her and squeezed it while she fought to get her feet back under her.
"Steady," a deep voice ordered. "I have you."
Even through the shock of the icy water she recognized the voice. "Your Grace?" she gasped, shoving her drenched, twisted red hair out of one eye.
The lean, handsome face just inches above hers looked at least as astounded as she felt. "Sophia? Miss White, I mean. Are you injured?"
"No, Your Grace. Thank you for inviting me to Christmas." With her standing chest deep in rushing water, the howling snowstorm blowing all around them, it seemed a ridiculous thing to say, but being saved from certain death seemed to have rattled her brain loose.
He flashed a brief grin at her. "Thank me later. For now, hold on to me."
"You'll have to pry me loose," she stated, attempting a return smile and instead inhaling more water. Coughing, she decided it would be wiser to be brave in silence, at least until they were out of the river.
Adam Baswich had jumped into the water to rescue her, though he hadn't known who she was. For someone as famously controlled as the Duke of Greaves, the act itself was rather surprising. And certainly fortuitous. But at the moment, she just wanted to be out of the freezing cold water. Sophia held on to his back, her shaking fingers dug into his shoulders, as the group of men on shore hauled in the rope he had tied around his waist. Greaves was as wet as she was, but when she tucked her frozen face into his spine he felt warm, and his large frame stopped the wind from blowing snow into her eyes.
"We have to climb up onto the ice to reach the shore," Greaves said, his voice strained. "Move around in front of me."
It took several attempts to get her fingers to uncurl. "I'm trying."
"Try harder. This isn't healthy for either of us."
"I'm aware of that, Your Grace." She clenched her jaw. "Unlike you, I didn't dive in on purpose."
With her water-laden skirts tangling at her legs and trying to drag her under water again, Sophia couldn't do much but not fight him as the duke simply hauled her around in front of him. "I could never resist a damsel in distress," he panted in her ear.
The fatigue and panic beginning to press at her faded a little. "Yes, I'm certain I look quite irresistible at the moment."
She was certain she felt his breathless chuckle against the back of her neck. "You have no idea. And I apologize," he said, then before she could ask what he was apologizing for, he placed both of his large hands under her rump and heaved her up onto the ice.
With a surprised wumpf she sprawled onto the hard, frozen surface. She'd once seen drawings of the seals on the beaches of the Orkney Islands, and Sophia was certain she very much looked like one as she flopped on the ice, gasping for air. A moment later the Duke of Greaves hauled himself up beside her.
"I apologize again," he panted, and reached over to tug at her dress.
Wet material slapped against the back of her knees, and she realized the gown must have been hiked up her bare backside in a very unbecoming manner. "Oh, dear," she coughed out, pushing herself into a sitting position. "If I were less frozen, I would likely be mortified. As it is, thank you."
A swift, surprised grin touched his mouth and then was gone again as he stood to offer her both of his hands. Disheveled midnight hair obscured the eyes she knew to be a deep, ocean-colored gray, but he didn't seem to notice either that or her scrutiny as he pulled her to her feet. Her legs felt wobbly as a newborn's, and she sagged against him. And to think, she generally scoffed at females who pretended weakness or light-headedness in order to enlist the aid of a big, strong man.
"I'm so sorry," she muttered, belatedly righting herself again. "But truthfully, if I'd fallen on you intentionally, I would have fixed my hair first."
"Your hair is quite ... spectacular," he returned, wrapping an arm around her waist and half lifting her as with the assistance of the rope he plowed up the snowy bank. "It's your lips turning blue that has me more concerned."
Immediately someone threw a heavy blanket over her shoulders, and she wrapped it close around her. Sophia shivered, certain the cold wind must be turning the water that drenched her clothes and hair and skin to ice. A snow-encrusted turkey scampered by squawking loudly, the coachman's assistant close on its heels.
"Poor thing," she muttered, "learned how to swim just to escape drowning, and it's still to be someone's Christmas dinner." It seemed a great deal of effort for very little reward. In a sense, she was in the same predicament. She only hoped a holiday at Greaves Park would be worth her efforts. The memories would have to last her a lifetime, after all.
"I rank you freezing to death over a half-drowned fowl. Evans!" The duke gestured at one of the dozen dry men interspersed with blanket-wrapped ones along the bank. "Get Miss White into a wagon and escort her to the house. I need to see the rest of the passengers to the inn."
A tall fellow in a heavy coat, his floppy-brimmed hat secured to his head by a thick woolen scarf, took her by the shoulders. "Can you walk, miss?" he asked.
Sophia watched as the Duke of Greaves vanished into the blowing snow, becoming just another of the bulky dark shapes hurrying around the growing cluster of horses and vehicles. Undoubtedly there were other foundering passengers waiting for heroic rescue. She blinked. "Yes. I've thrown a shoe, but I can walk. Thank you."
Evans guided her to a wagon and without warning lifted her into the back of the old vehicle. From somewhere he produced an additional blanket which he tucked around her legs and feet before he clambered up beside the driver. In a moment they were bumping along the same road she'd traveled before the collapse of the old stone bridge had interrupted the journey in a rather spectacular manner.
"How far is it to Greaves Park?" she called, ducking her nose beneath the edge of the blanket. Originally she'd meant to leave the mail coach at the close-by village of Hanlith and then hire a cart or a hack to take her to the estate. The ride now hadn't cost her the expected shilling, but she would rather have been warm and dry.
"We're nearly to the carriage road now," Evans returned, twisting in his seat to look at her. "Not ten minutes past that."
"How in the world did His Grace happen to be out here? And with all of you?"
"His Grace rides nearly every day, whatever the weather. We were in the village for onions and potatoes and heard the commotion. It's a lucky thing, miss."
Oh, she agreed with that. And considering she hadn't had much expectation of kindness or even polite conversation once she arrived at Greaves Park, her hopes hardly felt dashed by a dunking in the river. She'd journeyed from London to Yorkshire for only one reason — or two, she supposed — and that hadn't changed. "Do you know if Keating and Camille Blackwood have arrived yet?"
"You'd have to ask Udgell about that, miss. I don't have much to do with the house."
Even with the blankets, now that she was still and not fighting for breath, the cold began to seep into her bones. She needed to get out of her wet clothes, but that would have to wait until they reached Greaves Park. Resolutely she tucked her feet closer to her body and concentrated on thoughts of how grand it would be to see Camille Pryce — or rather Blackwood, now — after six months.
Whether Greaves had invited her as a favor to his good friend Keating Blackwood or because he thought she would be a good way to stir up a bit of scandal for his friends, she was supremely grateful to have been asked to the Christmas holiday. After years of being bounced from place to place, of simply waiting for her fellow boarding school residents or supposed friends to discover that she was the Duke of Hennessy's illegitimate daughter, she'd finally found a true friend in Camille.
The fact that she and Camille had both been forced into employment at The Tantalus Club only meant that they had a connection neither of them would have otherwise expected. Yes, the club was scandalous because it only employed lovely young ladies — some of very good birth and all of them well educated — but that had been Lady Haybury's point when she'd opened the club. Scandal drew customers, or members, or whatever they chose to call themselves. They came, and they gambled and ate and spent their money, and ruined women like Camille and her had a place they could call a home. And an income, and freedom enough to live however they chose.
The club also granted them protection from the outside world — to a point. Or so she'd believed until just under a fortnight ago. She shook herself. No thinking about that now. It wouldn't do her any good, and she meant to enjoy herself while she could.
On the tail of her thought the wagon crested a small rise and the valley beyond came into view. Peripherally through the blowing snow she noted where wilderness softened into a large formal garden, now heavily dusted with white and fronted by a small frozen lake. On the far side of that lay a substantial wood of oak and elm, twisted and knotted by Yorkshire's harsh weather despite the relative shelter of the shallow valley. At the center of it all, catching and holding her gaze as it emerged from the murky gloom of snow and twilight, stood a light-colored, sprawling behemoth.
Dozen and dozens of windows gazed out from the huge rectangular center section of Greaves Park and the narrower east and west wings that rose from the snow at either end, forming a tremendous, chimney-dotted H. She'd driven past Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire once, and Greaves Park made that magnificent building look like a cottage.
The white and gray stone made the estate house seem almost part of the snowstorm around it, emerging and vanishing again in the changing light of dusk. In fact, it reminded her of those silly gothic tales her friend Emily Portsman kept in her room at The Tantalus Club. A shiver only half from the cold ran down her spine.
"Don't you fret, miss," Evans abruptly commented. "Mrs. Brooks, the head housekeeper, 'll have you inside and warm and dry in no time."
Perhaps Evans could read minds, or perhaps he was merely accustomed to the overwhelmed awe of first-time, half-drowned visitors to the estate. Either way, the conversation drew her away from her own overwrought imaginings. "How many servants does His Grace employ?" she asked, her teeth chattering so badly she wasn't certain she made any sense at all.
"More than enough to see to everything you could ever need, Miss White. We may be out in the wilds of Yorkshire, but don't you worry about that."
Drat it all. She must have sounded like some pointy-nosed, spoiled prima donna. Which might have been fun, except that she doubted her performance could compare to the actual noblewomen who'd already arrived there. "I only meant that it must take a small army to keep up such a grand house."
Evans faced her again, his bundled-up expression quizzical. "Near fifty then, I think. Udgell or Mrs. Brooks'll know better than me."
She nodded, much preferring to be a curiosity over some easily deciphered chit — even one who'd evidently just displayed her bare, frozen arse to half of Yorkshire. Finally the wagon stopped at the head of the wide, semicircular drive, and Evans hopped to the snowy ground with enviable ease. Sophia couldn't even feel her legs any longer. That hardly mattered, though, because the servant lifted her out of the back of the cart before she could do any more than gasp her surprise. Evans carried her up the trio of shallow granite steps to the massive front door. Under other circumstances, with two other people, this would have been terribly romantic, she was certain.
The heavy oak door opened just as they reached it. "Evans," a reedy male voice intoned, "what have you there? We are not a charitable estab —"
"This is Miss White, one of His Grace's guests," the groom returned breathlessly, shifting his grip a little around her knees. "The bridge finally let loose and tossed the entire mail coach into the river. Drowned nearly a dozen turkeys, and —"
"Stop talking and follow me," the absurdly tall, thin butler interrupted, turning his back and heading for the curved, mahogany-railed staircase at the rear of the foyer. "Roger, find Mrs. Brooks immediately."
A footman scampered off into the depths of the house. Sophia nearly began a protest that she could manage on her own, but she closed her lips before she uttered a sound. It was a very grand, very tall staircase, and at the moment she doubted she would have been able to drag herself up to the first landing.
More servants fell in around them, and she began to feel as though she were leading a parade of hot water buckets, pillows, coal-filled bed pans, and what looked like someone's oversized night rail. The bed pan looked especially blissful, and she could almost imagine how the warm metal would feel against her chilled feet.
They reached a large bedchamber, and after a brief conversation a short, rotund woman chased the male servants and all but one other maid out and closed the door behind them. "There we are," she said in a warm voice that didn't much feel like it belonged in the large, cold house, stripping the wet blanket from Sophia's shoulders and handing it to the second maid. "They might at least have sent for the coach and kept you out of that dreadful howling wind."
Excerpted from Rules to Catch a Devilish Duke by Suzanne Enoch. Copyright © 2012 Suzanne Enoch. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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