How to Ditch a Duke

Dukes by the Dozen Anthology

Special Excerpt

 

CHAPTER 1

 How to Ditch A Duke

– Step 1 –

Neglect Your Appearance in Important Situations

Angus, the Scottish Highlands

April 1820

Lady Taylor Fleming stood with her maid a few yards off from the stranded coach-and-four. The hard downpours had eased to a miserable, drenching rain, and water had long ago soaked through her boots. She was chilled to the bone. From the sound of the teeth chattering next to her, Taylor knew her maid wasn’t faring any better. She took the satchel, allowing the older woman to warm her hands.

A thick grey cloud had been chasing them since she and her family left the Lowlands. The accident could not have happened at a worse place, for the chance of help arriving anytime soon was unlikely. She’d traveled this road a hundred times, and she knew there wasn’t a crofter or a village for miles. They were stuck.

They’d needed to leave Edinburgh. Sporadic outbreaks of violence had followed the social protest assemblies earlier in the week, and the clashes had spooked her father. The weavers’ guilds and other reform groups had been shutting down business in cities from Manchester to Glasgow to Edinburgh to Aberdeen, and the authorities were retaliating everywhere with military force to suppress the voices of protesters. When a pitched battle had spread to a hospital surgery near the university, killing a doctor, it had been the last straw.

Their escape had hardly been an easy one, but the sodden road going west toward the family hunting lodge had been a nightmare ever since they left the coach road at Montrose. Then, nearly an hour ago, a rear wheel slid into the ditch. They’d been fortunate the carriage didn’t turn over, but the wretched thing was sunk in the mud up to the axle.  

So now, they were marooned on an isolated road in the Highlands.

“Lift the blasted thing. Put your backs into it.”

The querulous voice was getting on everyone’s nerves. The men were trying. Taylor looked from the driver, urging the tired horses, to the two grooms and the pair of valets struggling to keep their footing in the cold muck. Her father and brother stood beneath the solitary oak tree beside the road. The Earl of Lindsay and Viscount Clay. Both men were completely ignorant of how much horse and manpower it took to move the heavy weight of a carriage from a predicament such as this. But that didn’t stop the incessant directions.

“Lighten the load, you fools!”

The trunks and other luggage were sitting in a pile, having been unloaded immediately after the accident. Taylor seethed as her father continued to berate the men.

“Lay a whip to those horses. This is no Sunday ride in the park. Show them who is master.”

Her skin burned with irritation. Incessant harassment was the earl’s standard response whenever things didn’t go as he wished. As the only daughter, Taylor had been on the receiving end of his carping for as long as she could remember. Since her mother’s death seven years ago, however, she’d learned that the secret to dealing with him was to keep her distance when she could manage it and pay no heed to him when she couldn’t. Of course, her aptitude when it came to investing and managing their money played in her favor too. So long as she took care of her father’s and brother’s expenses and didn’t bother them about their exorbitant spending, a fragile peace was maintained.

“Blast you all! We don’t want to be out here all day.”

The men’s faces were streaked and spattered with mud, and their clothes were soaked and filthy. They continued to push as the driver pressed his tired team. The horses snorted and pulled, and the carriage groaned and rocked dangerously, but a moment later the contraption settled back where it was. They were getting nowhere.

They needed help.

Just then, one of valets, a slight, middle-aged man, slipped and went down, sliding into the roadside ditch. 

“Get up, man. Come out of there this instant, or you’ll feel my cane.”

That was all she could take. Taylor peeled off her gloves and handed them, along with the satchel, to her maid. As she stalked toward the tree, the muck sucked at her shoes and her cloak dragged behind her, but she didn’t care. 

“Help them, Clay,” Taylor ordered when she reached them. “We’ll never get out of here without extra help for the men.”

Her brother, standing beside the earl, gazed into the distance, pretending not to hear her.

“Push harder. Lift!” The earl shouted a string of curses when the valet was too slow in regaining his place. 

“The horses and the men are tired,” Taylor said to her brother. The rain continued to beat down on her, but neither man shifted an inch to make room for her under the tree’s branches. “They’re no closer to moving the carriage than they were an hour ago.”

She wanted to shake Clay. He continued to disregard her, brushing water droplets from his cloak.

“Don’t ignore me,” Taylor persisted. “You need to go out there and help them.”

“You must be daft.” He glared at her. “Help them how?”

“Lend a hand. Help push the carriage onto the roadway.”

“No bloody chance of that. I’m wet enough as it is.”

She hated to admit it, but her brother was becoming more and more like their father every day. “We’re all wet. They need more muscle.”

“Have you forgotten my shoulder? The deuced thing will never heal if I don’t give it a rest.”

“You tripped climbing two steps six weeks ago, and it hasn’t stopped you from fencing at the club or rolling dice with your friends.”

“You’re a cold fish. You have no sympathy. No heart. You couldn’t care less about the pain I’ve endured.”

Taylor definitely had no patience for the drama that came part and parcel with every interaction with her brother. Four years older than Clay, she wasn’t his mother. She wasn’t his keeper. And she was tired of the jealousy that lay just beneath the skin of every comment he directed toward her. During arguments, he made no attempt to veil his hostility and resentment. She knew the source of his antipathy. Over five years ago, her mother’s brother had left a fortune to Taylor. Not to his nephew, not to his brother-in-law, but to his niece. And any moment now, she knew Clay would bring up the topic.

 “I wouldn’t even be here if you weren’t such a tight-fisted harridan. If you’d paid my way to Bath—”

“Save your complaining for another day. They need you now.” Taylor pointed at the men struggling in the storm. “Go.”

“I think not!” Clay shot back hotly, turning to the earl. “Father, speak to her. If you don’t curb her, she’ll have us driving the carriage ourselves.”

Lord Lindsay looked down his nose at her, at his son, and back again at Taylor.

“Look at you. You’re as tall as your brother. Wider in the shoulders. And you’re surely twice his weight. Too bad you’re not a man, because you’re hardly a woman.”

Her throat closed. Her eyes burned. Her skin flushed in anger. His barbs were nothing new. She’d been the target of his demeaning comments about her size and shape for all her adult life. During the years when she was paraded out in front of society’s eligible bachelors—only to be treated as if she were invisible to them—he’d have the same sharp jabs. She could ignore the scoffing efforts at wit from strangers, but not from her own kin. She could pretend her father’s gibes didn’t sting, but the hurt never went away.

Throwing the hood back and shedding her cloak, Taylor shoved it into Clay’s stomach and turned on her heel, moving down toward the carriage.

“What are you doing?” The earl’s shout followed her. “Come back here this instant.”

Tears escaped but immediately washed away, mingling with the droplets of the rain. She wouldn’t allow them to see her cry. She wouldn’t give them the satisfaction of knowing they could still hurt her. Her anger regarding their carelessness and lack of responsibility, they were accustomed to. Her temper, when unleashed, was the only thing they feared and respected. And in moments like this, she valued it, as it provided her with a shield.

One foot sank into the mud, followed by the other, as she trudged toward the carriage. With each step, she tried to silence the haranguing voices behind her and instead focus on the men who’d paused for breath. They were all staring as she approached.

“Shall we?” she asked, rolling up her sleeves to the elbows. 

“M’lady, you shouldn’t.” The driver glanced uncertainly at his master and back at her.

She shook her head at his soft-spoken words. “I believe I should. Let’s do this now. Let’s show them how it’s done.”

Ignoring the murmurs of protest coming from the others, she put her shoulder against the rear of the vehicle. She braced her feet, and after a moment’s hesitation, the men returned to their places.

On three, the driver shouted his commands to the horses and they all pushed. But the carriage remained anchored in place.

Rain pelted down on them. At least, her father was silenced for the moment. Again, they threw their weight into the effort, and the neighing of the horses was accompanied by the grunts and muttered profanities of the men.

Her feet sank in the mud up to her ankles. The exertion wore on her. She wasn’t used to strenuous physical labor, but she persevered. Still, there was no movement. Her breath caught in her chest with the next push, and she tasted the saltiness of tears on her lips.

She knew nothing about pushing carriages out of a ditch. She’d hoped to stir some shred of guilt in her brother. One person in this family needed to demonstrate some semblance of moral fiber. One person needed to show some appreciation for the efforts of others. She was also down here slogging in the muck to send a message to her father that he couldn’t hurt her. His insults meant nothing. She was a woman. A strong, financially independent woman.

Taylor closed her eyes and focused on the task as they started again, but she was suddenly aware of the presence of a man behind her.  

“If you please, step aside and allow me to help.”

She didn’t know who he was and where he came from, but she wasn’t about to give up her place.

“My lady, I can be far more effective if you give me room.” The voice carried the hint of an accent.

A stranger had stopped to rescue them while her family stood watching. She edged over a little, not about to leave her position at the back of the carriage. “We appreciate your help, sir.”

“If you were to rejoin your party beneath the tree—”

“I’m staying here, helping these men,” she said tensely.

The newcomer acquiesced and shouldered in beside her. They all pushed together, and the carriage inched forward. He had shed his coat, and his satin waistcoat was already dark with rain. The soaked sleeves of his shirt were plastered over muscled arms. His hands, latched securely onto the spoke of a wheel, were large.

“Let go.” He still hadn’t looked at her, and it was the tone of a man accustomed to being obeyed, but she continued to hold on.

“I can’t. I won’t.”

They all heaved again. She realized she was little more than an ornament in the process. Taylor felt the raw power exuding from the man. The earthy, masculine scent of leather and fresh air filled her head. His face was turned away, and she stared at his wide shoulders.

The next concerted effort caused the carriage to shift with a jerk as the wheel popped up onto the surface of the road. But as it did, Taylor fell and slid down the bank of the ditch into the muck and the runoff from the rain. The vehicle continued to move, and a cheer went up from the men.

Taylor pushed herself onto all fours. Her hands were deep in the mud, her knees sunk in it, and filthy brown water dripped from her chin.

Shame and embarrassment washed through her, more painful than any physical distress. Here she was, an earl’s daughter. One of the richest women in Scotland. While her mother was alive, Taylor had been doted on, loved, cherished. But those days were gone. Today was proof of it. Here, in the presence of a stranger on a storm-soaked Highland road, she was on her hands and knees, chilled and wet and bedraggled—an object of derision in the eyes of everyone. And to what end? Simply to prove a point to her selfish family about character.

Tall boots, caked in mud, and muscular legs encased in buckskin came into her view. The man crouched and held out his hand. The palm was callused. Another cold wave of humiliation washed through her. 

“Allow me.”

“Thank you. I can do this by myself.”

“I know you can. But please allow me to help. You’d do the same for me.”

Somehow, she couldn’t picture him groveling on all fours in the muck.

He produced a handkerchief from his waistcoat.

She shook her head. “It would be ruined.”

“It’s only a bit of cloth, made for this purpose.”

She reluctantly accepted it and wiped her eyes. A dark blot of mud covered the fine fabric.

“I’m sorry; it’s stained already.” Embarrassment thickened her voice.

“That was clearly its destiny, fulfilled in the hand of the worthiest of women.”

His kindness tugged at her heart. Hearing his subtle accent and gentle words, she envisaged him as a prince on a fine horse in some far-off land, rescuing damsels in distress like herself. Beginning to think she might simply be imagining this man, Taylor tried to claw her way up the low bank, only to slip back down.

“Please, will you deny this fellow traveler the same happy fate as his handkerchief?”

“I’m covered with mud.”

“What’s a smudge here or a smudge there?”

Taylor shook her head, unable to stop a smile from forming on her lips. He was definitely trying to make light of the situation. Still, she wasn’t ready to face him—face anyone.  

“If you had not taken the plunge, then the task would have fallen to me. In every rescue, one person must be sacrificed. And you bravely took on that role yourself. Allow me to show my gratitude.”

He wasn’t giving up. With a resigned sigh, she took his hand, and he began to pull her up.

“I think I can manage from…” Her words were lost as her feet flew out from beneath her and she collapsed against him.

“I’m certain you can.”

One cheek lay on his chest. Dirt smeared his waistcoat. She took the time to inhale his enthralling scent and appreciated the powerful muscles supporting her before slowly trying to push herself away. “That was unexpected.”

“I must confess, such unexpected outcomes are far more enjoyable than the….” 

He slipped, and suddenly she was holding him up. His face was pressed against her breasts. His arms wrapped around her hips. She tried to help him to straighten up, but instead, he held on tighter. The ridiculousness of the moment was colossal. She wanted to laugh. And from the little that Taylor could see of his face, he was amused too.

When he got his feet under him, she let go at the same time that he did.

“I think I’ll be fine now,” she murmured. “If you’d be so kind as to…”

Suddenly, she was on her way down again, one leg heading for Aberdeen and the other toward Edinburgh. Somehow, she’d turned in his arms, and he was holding her up, his hands just beneath her breasts, squeezing her against him.

“My apologies.”

“Perfectly fine,” she managed to chirp. “Your intention was quite chivalrous.”

For the first time in her life, a man was touching her breasts, her bottom, every inch of her—front and back—but none of it was in the cause of romance. 

She finally stood, and he released her. Taylor turned. Both of them now having regained their footing, she hazarded a glance. His shirt and waistcoat and trousers were as filthy as hers.

“I’m so sorry,” she murmured. “That was my fault.”

“Hardly. The pleasure was entirely mine, liebling.”

She heard the huskiness in his voice, but hers didn’t sound any better. She felt warm and tingly and excited, regardless of the ludicrous circumstances.

“You’re shivering. May I assist you into the carriage?”

Taylor was shivering. Too soon, reality had returned. She still hadn’t really looked him in the face, and she was embarrassed to do so now. But it couldn’t be avoided. And when she did, she wished the ground would open and swallow her entirely.

The stranger was beautiful, the embodiment of every woman’s dreams. Water glistened on the sharp planes of high cheekbones and a strong jaw. His lips were full, and his tanned and weathered skin indicated that he was a man who spent a great deal of time outdoors. His eyes had the grey-green hue that the sea took on in a storm. And they were focused on her.

Her skin warmed. A delicious knot formed in her belly. Taylor’s breath caught in her chest. She averted her gaze, staring at his lips. That was no help. Her heart drummed so loud against the walls of her chest that he had to hear it.

“You’ll catch a fever standing here in the cold. Please allow me to escort you to your carriage.” 

She already had a fever, and it had nothing to do with the cold and the weather. “I’ll be fine. Thank you, but I can manage.”

She took an involuntary step back and nearly tumbled once again into the ditch.

He reached out and steadied her. His fingers lingered before letting go, and he offered his arm. “Wherever you wish to go, please allow me.”  

“Thank you. You’re very kind.” She practically sighed the words. The truth was, she could have stood there looking into those eyes all day. “But I should be able to manage…now.”

Taylor carefully stepped across the soft ground and moved away from him. Her boots were heavy. Her dress sagged on her body. Her wet, filthy hair stuck to her face. She put one foot resolutely in front of the other, looking straight ahead as she passed the carriage. The grooms were already handing up the trunks to get underway.

Her father was calling from the direction of the tree. She passed a magnificent black stallion pawing the earth. A cloak and hat had been tossed onto the saddle. She didn’t slow down. She had to keep going. She had to disappear. She shut her ears to everything and forged onward.

Memories riffled through her mind like pages of a book open in the wind. Ballrooms. Standing on the edge of dance floors, hoping for a look, a glance, a flirtatious gesture. Like any other young woman, she’d wanted to be noticed. That wish had never been granted. Empty dance cards.  No one even addressed her, let alone held her or called her liebling.

Her father had always been quick to identify everything that was wrong with her. Happy to enumerate why no suitors sent up their cards. Too tall. Too fat. Too pale. Too smart. Too outspoken. So, after two long, disastrous Seasons, she closed her heart. She needed no romance. It was too painful.

Taylor slipped as the road rose again, but she stayed upright. The rain-drenched Highland countryside blurred around her, but she continued on.

Fortunately, after two years with not even the hint of a suitor, she became an heiress. As a rich and independent woman, she was secure for the rest of her life.

With the money came attention. Her modest dowry had become a fortune, but she had no interest in a husband. She busied herself in the financial affairs of her family, visited her trusted friends, and ignored the social invitations that arrived every day.

At twenty-seven years old, Taylor thought she was immune to men.

Until this man. His chivalry. His strength. His kindness. His eyes. That liebling. And those absurd moments of clutching and falling and supporting each other in the mud.

Don’t be a fool, she told herself, picking up the hem of her dress and increasing the length of her stride.

“My lady. My lady, please stop.”

Her maid’s distressed call cut into her thoughts. Taylor waited until she caught up with her.

“You’re going to catch your death.”

Taylor took her cloak from the older woman, who proceeded to fuss over her in an attempt to make her presentable. Taylor knew it was a lost cause.  

“They’re coming, my lady.”

Taylor glanced back down the hill and was surprised at how far she’d walked. She caught a glimpse of a cloaked man astride his black steed, riding away. As he disappeared around a bend in the distance, she felt oddly disconcerted, as if a beacon on the shore had suddenly vanished. He was here, and then he was gone.

The handkerchief was still miraculously clutched in her fist. She tucked it into her sleeve. 

“His lordship said to wait. They’ll pick us up here.”

Taylor watched the men finish strapping down the luggage. Her father and Clay had to be inside already. She felt drained, exhausted. She was not looking forward to climbing into that carriage. She had no stomach for any more arguments. Whatever had been said, whatever she’d done, it all meant nothing. This was simply another day in the wearying life she led with those men. What she really wanted to think about now was a pair of grey-green eyes.

A few minutes later, the driver stopped the carriage, and Taylor and her maid climbed in. With the exception of her father looking disdainfully down his nose and Clay shifting his position so that his knees wouldn’t brush against hers, nothing else was said. Taylor looked out the window, wishing for one more glimpse of their rescuer, but he was long gone.

“Looking for the duke?” Clay asked.

Duke? Taylor tried to think of the dukes she’d met in her life. Not one had been like him. And he’d come to their aid. She didn’t know if she wanted to laugh or cry. A duke had helped them while an earl and a viscount stood by and did nothing. If she lived to be a hundred, she would never forget the feel of his powerful arms around her.

“The man was a duke?” she asked finally.

 “Franz Aurech, Duke of Bamberg.” Her father was thumbing a card.

“Bamberg,” her brother clarified. “In Bavaria.”

The accent. Liebling. It all made sense. “He left his card? Are you going to see him again?”

“Indeed,” Lord Lindsay replied curtly, tucking the card into his waistcoat pocket. “He mentioned that he traveled here from the continent to find a suitable wife. I offered you to him. And as strange as it seems, he might be interested.”

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