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The Duke and Miss Christmas
By Amelia Grey
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2015 Amelia Grey
All rights reserved.
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."
Damnation, 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 she —"
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.
"Go for help, Sybil!" she exclaimed, trying to wrench the basket from his grip. "Hurry! Ride, fast!" she continued before he finally wrestled the wicker out of her hands and tossed it aside.
"Wait," Crispin said, whirling toward Sybil. But she had already thrown her good leg over the saddle and clutched the reins tightly in her hands. Crispin reached out for her but caught only a handful of air. At the same time, the young lady had reached behind him and slapped the horse's rump. The mare took off at a trot with Sybil bouncing in the saddle but somehow managing to hang on.
Fearing Sybil might fall off and do more damage to her leg, Crispin let out a loud whistle, but the animal wasn't trained to obey the command and kept going. He started to run after the horse, but the tail of his cloak was grabbed from behind and he was yanked backward.
"You can't have my sister! Leave her alone."
Crispin spun around so fast he lost his footing on the loose gravel and fell to the ground, but not before dragging the young lady down on top of him as he went.
Having had enough of the spirited young lady, Crispin rolled her onto her back. His cloak and her cape mingled and twisted around them, wrapping them together. Crispin grabbed the wrists of her flailing arms in his hands and trapped her kicking legs between his to stop her ineffective wrestling. His greater strength quickly and easily overpowered her, but she didn't quit trying to best him.
"Let me up, you foul beast!" She ground out a hiss as she struggled to break free.
Not a chance in hell, he thought as his fingers tightened.
His chest pressed hard against her soft breasts. Her heavy breathing was as fast and unsteady as his. The thrashing continued. She didn't willingly surrender the fight as he'd hoped once he trapped her, and their tussle for dominance continued. Crispin appreciated her courage, vitality, and strength. He might even be a little impressed by them, but he couldn't let her win.
"Stop squirming, you little hellion," he countered, jamming her bucking body harder to the cold ground with his weight.
But she didn't relent. This fearless young lady had no intentions of giving up her struggle.
"Be still," he said with difficulty. "I don't want to hurt you."
"Then let me go, you brute," she demanded between gasps, grunts, and bumps.
Was she calling him the brute when she was the one who stole up behind him and bashed him with a basket for no comprehensible reason?
"You started this," he countered, and shifted the length of his body on top of hers.
Crispin looked down into the loveliest face he'd ever seen. The spitfire's skin was flawless and the color of pale parchment, except for the heightened flush in her cheeks. She wore no bonnet and her flowing glorious blond hair was littered with brown grass, tiny twigs, and little pieces of gravel from their rolling around. Her shoulders were slender and straight. He felt a soft fullness to her breasts. And, despite her brazenness in attacking him, she looked wholesome, innocent, and everything else that was good about life. His muscles flexed in response to his sudden and unanticipated attraction to her.
"What did you plan on doing with my sister?" she demanded with a weakening spring against him. "Where were you taking her?"
"To her home," he answered hotly, focusing his concentration completely on her.
"Where did you think I was taking her?"
Crispin watched the panic gradually drain from her wide, expressive eyes and delicate features. She blinked slowly, taking in what he'd said. Then the realization of what she suspected came to him in a rush and resentment shot through him, hot and fierce. He'd been accused of many unsavory things in his lifetime and he'd probably done most of them, but he was an honorable man and he'd never hurt a child.
There was no way he would let an accusation like that go unanswered.
"You think I wanted to — to harm her?" he asked incredulously, not wanting to even voice the outrageous thought out loud. "A little girl?"
"I heard her scream," the lady challenged quickly. "She was crying and you were forcing her to get on your horse."
The miss scrambled to get from beneath him again, bucking and pushing against his body, but he held her securely. His muscles wound tighter in answer to all her wriggling. She had stirred more than his ire and his curiosity. Her movements were making him highly aware that her slight but obviously womanly form was warm and supple beneath him. If he wasn't so outraged about what she'd thought he intended to do to her little sister, his mind would be traveling places it shouldn't go.
"Did you once stop to think she might be crying because she was hurt, and I was trying to help her?"
Crispin felt her feminine spine stiffen and her arched brows furrowed as she eyed him skeptically. "Hurt? What do you mean?"
His hands slackened a little on her wrists. He regarded her keenly and bent his head so close to hers their noses almost touched. "It might have seemed as if I were forcing her, but that's not what was happening. I was trying to help her. Now thanks to you, she'll probably be thrown off the horse."
The young lady bristled and struggled against him again. "Sybil will not. She rides very well. Do you think I'd ask her to ride for help if she wasn't capable of doing it?"
"Yes. If you thought I was going to harm her or you," he answered tersely.
"Well, if you weren't forcing her onto your horse, why was she crying and telling you to stop?"
"She fell out of a tree and hurt herself."
The young lady gasped and her body stilled. He felt her prickle of concern. Her warm breaths continued to come heavy and deep.
"I was trying to get her onto the horse to take her to Drakestone and her injured foot caught in something on the saddle. That's why she was crying and telling me to stop."
"Why didn't you say so?" she whispered.
Crispin wondered if the young lady realized just how close his lips were to hers. The air was cold, fresh, and invigorating. So was she. Without even knowing it, the miss was alluring, weaving a sensuous cover of heat around him and drawing him into the web she didn't even know she had created.
His voice softened as he asked, "Why didn't you ask before you started attacking me?"
She quickly moistened her lips. "I was coming up the path looking for her when I heard her scream. I saw you putting her on your horse and I heard her say 'don't' and 'stop.' I just assumed you were forcing her to go with you."
In this Crispin would not give an inch. "You were wrong."
Her eyes swept up and down his face. Crispin knew it was the first time she'd actually taken a moment to really look at him. Once again, he was made very aware of the womanly body beneath him and suddenly she was aware of that, too. He couldn't help but wonder if she found him as fascinating as he found her.
"Let me up," she demanded, and started struggling again. "I must go to Sybil."
Crispin wasn't ready to let his captive go. "She is halfway to Drakestone by now and you've no chance of catching up to her before she reaches help."
"How badly was she hurt?" the young lady asked, her breaths evening out as her body went slack beneath him again.
"I don't think her leg was broken anywhere, but it needs attention."
"Oh, she was not supposed to come searching for trimmings this morning and certainly not by herself." She let out a frustrated sigh. "Sybil was told it was too early to decorate the house for the Christmas ball. She never listens to us."
Excerpted from The Duke and Miss Christmas by Amelia Grey. Copyright © 2015 Amelia Grey. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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