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Say Yes to the Duke (House of Brady)by Kieran Kramer
Lady Janice Sherwood—the one with the gorgeous older sister—had literally waltzed, however inelegantly, through several London Seasons and still hadnt found a husband. Everyone knew what a proper young lady did when she wasnt in demand. She rusticated in the English countryside in the hopes shed be missed. And it went without saying that if she were wise, shed develop her own magical charm while she was there—perhaps even catch the attention of an eligible gentleman in residence.
The chances that the dowagers grandson, the fabulously handsome Duke of Halsey, would fall madly in love with Janice when she was to stay at his house as a guest of his grandmother were next to nil. But Janices parents, knowing the duke was to be there hovering about his prize horses, hoped the impossible would happen.
“But it wont,” Janice said that very frosty morning she left London. “Me? Marry a duke?”
It was a ridiculous notion. She was going to the country to hide, for goodness sake!
“If you have to fall in love, it might as well be with a duke,” Mama said in utter seriousness, Daddy nodding solemnly behind her.
They actually believed that Janice, in her diminished state, was capable of attracting such a lofty personage. Which was touching, of course, if a bit deluded, the way all parents hopes were.
She might not be able to fulfill her parents dreams of glory for her—after all, her three best suitors had deserted her last Season—but she could be sporting about it. So when Lord Bradys glossy black carriage broke a wheel at the beginning of the long drive leading to the ducal manor, Janice put down her book and was willing to walk the rest of the way. But Oscar said no, she should wait for him to return with a fully equipped carriage from His Graces stables.
“Because the daughter of a marquess doesnt arrive on foot at the front door of a dukes house,” he said. “Nor does she ride in a cart.”
Of all the Brady drivers, only Oscar had the privilege of speaking so freely.
“I thought you told me nothing happens in the country, my lady,” her maid, Isobel, fretted.
Oh, dear. Perhaps Isobel had that privilege, too.
“Nothing ever does happen,” Janice asserted, hoping her confident delivery would lend her words extra power. A month dawdling in the country would allow her to forget for a while that she was the invisible sister, wedged between a glorious beauty—Marcia—and an adorable charmer, Cynthia, whod soon make her own debut. “Well play cards until Oscar comes back, shall we?”
“Very well,” said the maid, “but youre not very good at cards, my lady. Do you think youll have better luck with the duke?”
“Dont you want to marry him? Every eligible young lady should if shes got a head on her shoulders.”
“But I want to marry for love.” Janice did, too. Not that she had much hope for it, at the rate she was going.
Isobel dealt out the cards. “I should think loving a duke would be easier than loving someone else.” Her tongue stuck out of the corner of her mouth as she eyed her hand.
“The question is how easy it is for a duke to fall in love with someone like me,” Janice murmured. “And we both know the answer.”
“Youre being much too hard on yourself,” protested Isobel. “Youre very agreeable, my lady. And you had plenty of beaus in London.”
“Had is the operative term.” Janice sighed.
Isobel gave a luxurious laugh. “Perhaps you were too sparing with your kisses.…”
Janice likely had been. She drew a card. Another heart! “I refuse to think any more of love,” she said. “Its much too overwhelming a subject.” And kissing was dull. It had been a grave disappointment to her to discover that fact. “Now lets play cards until Oscar returns. I vow to beat you this time.”
But when the carriage door opened fifteen minutes later, Janice had lost yet again and the person standing there wasnt Oscar. From what she could see of the stranger through the new-falling snow, he was tall, broad shouldered, in his late twenties, she guessed—likely one of the dukes grooms, in his well-cut but serviceable coat and simply tied cravat. Beneath his beaver hat, his hair was like coal, curling around his ears and framing a square, shaven jaw.
His horse stood waiting patiently behind him.
Janices spine straightened. The mans eyes, thickly fringed in black lashes, were deep blue, the color of Daddys sapphire ring. And his mouth—ah, his mouth. It was a work of art. Hard, male, yet as expressive as his eyes, which radiated intelligence, good humor, and a bold, restless intensity that proclaimed him his own man, despite his servants garb.
The slight imperfection of his aquiline nose suggested hed been in a fight or two. But the mystery and threat its crooked line hinted at only made his sheer masculine beauty more compelling. Indeed, his appearance was a shock, especially when she was expecting potato-eared—but perfectly lovable—Oscar.
Isobel, too, found the stranger riveting, judging from the way her chin dropped onto the thick violet muffler with extra pom-poms Janice had knitted for her.
The mans eyes glittered with interest when he perused Janices face, setting her heart racing. What on earth? He was a servant, of all things. He shouldnt be looking at her that way.
“Youre obviously unhurt,” he said, “so Ill dispense with the niceties.” His voice was rich yet faintly bitter, like one of the coffeehouse brews she craved on a regular basis and sneaked out to get when Mama wasnt looking. “State your business, my lovelies. No one with good intentions comes down this road.”
“Of course weve good intentions,” said Janice, mortified. “Weve been traveling for hours with good intentions, and we intend to get out of this carriage and have a cup of tea with His Grace and the dowager duchess.” Her heart pounded like a herd of stallions crossing a plain. She was dressed modestly, in a navy cape and simple matching bonnet. And as for her hair, shed taken no time to pin it back up after a few ringlets had fallen out at their last stop.
Yet the man eyed her as if she was a fascinating creature. He was the only man whod ever looked at her that way, and she immediately thought of her underthings, all of them practical but with scraps of the finest Avignon lace sewn here and there. Mama had made them and stitched Janices initials on every garment.
“Youre after more than tea with the duke and the dowager.” He grinned, exposing strong, white teeth. “We received no notice of your arrival, yet youve enough trunks to stay for weeks.”
“Your impertinence is remarkable,” said Janice. “We are staying longer than tea. We plan to stay for a month.” She sat up higher on her seat and, despite her pique with this man, felt an insane desire to lean forward, lay the flat of her palm against his jaw, and cup it, just so she could trap that grin and stare at it all day long. She didnt need the rest of him. Oh, no. The rest of him could jump in a lake. “The dowager summoned me herself.”
“How can that be when shes incapable of summoning anyone? She thinks shes the Queen.”
A great shock course through Janice. “Well, queens do summon people.”
His skeptical glance didnt faze her.
“Ill have you know she was quite lucid in her letter.” Janices tone was cool, but inside her heart was clamoring. How could the dowager think she was the Queen? “I have that letter in my trunk and am ready to produce it for the appropriate person, who wouldnt be you. Who are you, pray tell? A tenant farmer? One of the dukes grooms?”
The man lofted an elegant brow and opened his mouth to speak.
“I knew it!” gasped Isobel before he could say anything. “Hes the duke himself!”
“Izzy!” Janice cried, embarrassed.
His mouth twitched in amusement. “I am a groom, actually.” He sounded quite proud of the fact. “My skills venture beyond the stables, however. Im tasked with preserving the integrity of the place, so dont bother making up a wild story about why you simply have to stay. Ive heard them all, I assure you.”
The twinkle in his eye unnerved Janice like nothing else. What was so amusing? And even if something was, how dare he look that way at her? She was a marquesss daughter, and while she didnt often flaunt that fact, she was owed at least a bit of dignity, wasnt she?
She looked down her nose at him. “But we havent done anything wrong. The dowager did summon me, I have the letter and seal to prove it, and youre the most disrespectful”—handsome—“groom Ive ever met—”
“I assume your driver has gone ahead with the horses,” he interrupted her smoothly. “This road is impeccably kept, not a pothole in it. Which of you engineered that? Or was that your drivers trick? The letter is easy enough to discount—forgers abound—but a broken wheel permits a second chance at staying while the letter is examined. An ingenious complication to the ploy, ladies.”
“There is no ploy,” Janice returned hotly.
But she could hardly hold on to her shock and anger. His eyes had filled with jealous admiration. Or perhaps it was reluctant respect, not the kind she usually got—the Im looking through you token respect that men, servants, and everyone gave her as the stepdaughter of a marquess.
It was very much like the respect shed earned from her old friend Dickon. When she was eight and he was nine, she could balance on one leg much longer than he could. This man was looking at her the same way, as if she had a talent. A skill of some kind. A special trick.
And you do, the thought came to her. Youve got all sorts of special tricks and talents.
It was a big, wonderful notion, and it hadnt occurred to her in a very long while. Confidence surged through her. “Id like to know what trick youre up to, sirrah. Im Lady Janice Sherwood. And this is my abigail, Miss Isobel Jenkins.”
“Of the traveling circus Jenkinses,” Isobel interjected proudly.
He raised a brow, and Janice let him wonder. Izzy never passed up an opportunity to speak of her family and their interesting way of life, and Janice, for one, adored her all the more for it.
“Youre being most irregular suggesting were here under false pretenses and planned our little accident,” Janice accused him. He leaned lazily against the carriage door frame, presumably unaffected by her ire. “Had I not been rattled by the shock of hearing that the dowager isnt well, coupled with the tumble we nearly took within this carriage, Id take even more offense. Whats your name?”
“Luke Callahan,” he said in serious tones. “Thank you for asking. Youre the first ever to ask, of all the strumpets whove come to see the duke in the six weeks Ive been here.”
Oh, goodness. His eyes. The pupils were like little black diamonds inside those sapphire irises.
“Youre welcome, Mr. Callahan.” Janice swallowed. “Wait a minute, what did you say?” She stared at Izzy. “Did he call me a strumpet?”
Izzy nodded, her eyes wide.
“Ill take it back”—his tone was completely unapologetic, but his gaze felt like a caress—“if youll cooperate. Its too late to return you to the village. The snow has lent you the best excuse yet to stay—even better than that broken wheel. But youd best behave while youre here.”
“Behave?” Janice practically squeaked the word, she felt so prim at the moment—and she only felt prim whenever she was in over her head. “I dont know what youre about, but it makes no sense. No sense at all. Why, look at my bonnet and cloak! Theyre perfectly respectable—”
“Come now.” He shot her a sympathetic grin. “You and I both know they dont disguise your true hot nature.”
“My what?” She inhaled a breath. “If you dont stop spouting nonsense—”
“Let me explain a little closer,” he said, and, without ceremony, half-entered the carriage, grabbed her by the hand, and pulled.
Janices heart went wild. “What in heavens name? Just what do you think youre doing?” Shock turned to anger, and anger made her fierce. She clung to the door of the carriage with every ounce of strength in her.
Yet with one quick motion the groom tugged her free, and she fell into his arms, like a fly into a spiders web.
Isobel screamed just as he kicked the door shut and set Janice on the ground. “Youre good,” he said in an approving tone while holding her pinned tightly against his chest. “Not many know the dowager is in residence. And that wheel … you must be hell-bent on deliverance. From what, though? Why would a spitfire like you need saving?”
“Unhand me,” Janice said, low. From behind her, she heard Isobel opening the carriage window. “Im the daughter of a marquess.”
“Thats what they all say,” he said with relish, and captured her arm behind her back. “I must warn you. If you expect anything worthwhile from that excuse for a duke youre after, youll be disappointed. If youre wise, youll leave as soon as the roads clear.” He paused long enough to rake her from head to toe with an appreciative glance—she put every ounce of scorn in her possession into the haughty expression she shot back at him—and then he kissed her, a bawdy, lush kiss that demanded immediate compliance.
It was a miracle how quickly he redefined kissing for her, a marvel how well her lips fit with his in the brief second before she gathered her wits and attempted to knee the blackguard in the groin. She caught him on his thigh instead.
“What the devil?” He drew back and stared at her, not releasing her arm, which he still held vice-like behind her back.
“See?” Janice was breathing hard. “I really am here to see the dowager, you reckless rogue of a man!”
Snow fell between them, and she had the uncanny feeling she was in a dream. Its he, her heart said—her foolish, foolish heart—even as her lips stung, her throat tightened with white-hot anger, and her brain immediately pegged him as no good.
The man like no other.
The one Mama had told her shed find someday, who Marcia had also assured her would come her way despite the fact that her experience with Finn Lattimore had shaken her to the core and made her distrust men entirely.
But Luke Callahan—this groom—couldnt be he. He wasnt a gentleman, not by half.
He grinned. “So Ive erred.”
“You most certainly have.” She gave a yank on her arm.
He let it go, but now he put his hands on the small of her back and pressed her close. “Devil take it,” he said in that easy way he had of speaking, “youre a luscious mistake I dont regret.” He perused her face. “Do you? Do you wish Id never supposed you were anything other than a proper lady?”
She blinked several times. “I cant answer that,” she whispered. “And youre a blackguard to ask.”
He roared with laughter. “I like you, Lady Janice. You and your circus maid. Shes watching right now. Lets ignore her, shall we?” And with a wicked gleam in his eye he bent down and kissed Janice again.
What was she doing?
But he was good … oh, so good. If a man could be called good the way she called a warm fire good, or a cup of steaming chocolate, or a … a mouth that spoke to her without speaking, the way his was.
Youre made for love.
You tantalize me.
I want you.
Messages that made her entire body wake up in a way it never had before. She was quivery, like a newborn lamb. Her eyes were closed, but the world unfolded like a bright spring meadow.
His lips brushed soft yet insistent against her own, but hardness was what she was thinking of, the solid weight of him—of his chest, and his belly, and the security of his thighs against hers.
Mr. Callahans thighs.
Three words she never knew shed say. Shed never even heard of the middle one, Callahan. But in that moment, they were the three most important words shed ever put together.
Life was full of surprises.
Copyright © 2013 by Kieran Kramer
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