Read Of Dukes and Deceptions Online

Authors: Wendy Soliman

Of Dukes and Deceptions

Of Dukes and Deceptions

By Wendy Soliman

When Nicholas Buchanan, the Duke of Dorchester, accepts an invitation to visit a country stud farm, he counters his boredom by striking a wager with his henchman that he’ll bed the poor relation, Alicia Woodley, before the end of his stay. But he reckons without Alicia’s disdain. She’s disgusted by Nick’s cavalier attitude, unimpressed by his grandeur and wants as little as possible to do with him.

Between her newfound role as family charity case and fending off the attentions of both her clueless cousin and the arrogant Nicholas, Alicia Woodley has quite enough to contend with…but when her life is endangered, quite possibly from those closest to her, surprisingly it is Nicholas who seems determined to ensure her safety. As they conspire to uncover secrets that the family wants hidden at all costs, they discover a passion that surpasses all obstacles.

Dear Reader,

A new year always brings with it a sense of expectation and promise (and maybe a vague sense of guilt). Expectation because we don’t know what the year will bring exactly, but promise because we always hope it will be good things. The guilt is due to all of the New Year’s resolutions we make with such good intentions.

This year, Carina Press is making a New Year’s resolution we know we won’t have any reason to feel guilty about: we’re going to bring our readers a year of fantastic editorial and diverse genre content. So far, our plans for 2011 include staff and author appearances at reader-focused conferences such as the RT Booklovers Convention in April, where we’ll be offering up goodies, appearing on panels, giving workshops and hosting a few fun activities for readers. We’re also cooking up several genre-specific release weeks, during which we’ll highlight individual genres. So far we have plans for steampunk week and unusual fantasy week. Readers will have access to free reads, discounts, contests and more as part of our week-long promotions!

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Dedication

For my lovely mother,

with my love and eternal gratitude for making me who I am.

Acknowledgements

Writing is a solitary occupation and I’m indebted to members of the British RNA for their unflinching help and support. My critique partner, Fenella, doesn’t pull her punches. Thanks are due to everyone at Carina Press for having faith in me, especially my talented editor, Deborah, whose expertise has greatly improved this novel.

Most of all, I owe my thanks to Andre, whose encouragement and words of wisdom have kept me sane

Chapter One

Cambridgeshire, England, 1820

The narrow village streets were crammed solid. Various animals and every sort of conveyance competed for the limited space. Stallholders selling anything from fresh produce to bolts of material and edible delicacies had set themselves up wherever they could find the room. Females engaged in the oldest profession were openly plying their trade, oblivious to the noise and lack of privacy. Fleet-footed children readied themselves to relieve the unwary of their valuables.

Nicholas Buchanan was attempting to drive his carriage through the middle of this chaos. His progress was painfully slow, his patience severely tested by the delay. A band of urchins jostled alongside, attempting to clear a path for the fine gentleman, instead almost causing a collision with an overloaded handcart. Two women conducting a raucous dispute over a basket of apples were singularly unimpressed by the splendour of Nick’s equipage. They suspended hostilities and shook their fists at him, shouting disparaging remarks when they were obliged to jump clear of his team.

“I told yer to take the other road through the big town.” Gibson, Nick’s right-hand man, valet, mentor and friend cast a knowing sideways glance at him. “That way there’d have been no holdups.”

Nick grimaced, his concentration focused on his team. “What, you’d have me listen to your advice and miss all the diversity of market day?”

“Well, it never hurts to take…whoa, what the—”

Several squealing pigs made a desperate bid for freedom. They dashed across the road directly in front of Nick’s carriage, causing his highly strung thoroughbreds to prance skittishly sideways. A mangy dog sprang after them, its inept attempt to round the pigs up only adding to the mayhem.

“Bloody pigs,” Gibson muttered. “Why ain’t the swineherd attending to his duties?”

“Probably exercising his elbow.” Nick nodded toward a nearby tavern that was doing a brisk trade. Well-to-do merchants and land agents could be seen rubbing shoulders with farmers, costermongers and a wretched-looking creature who was very likely the negligent swineherd.

Nick struggled to settle his team, indifferent to the curious glances cast in his direction. When they eventually left the final cluster of houses behind them, he expelled a heartfelt sigh of relief and gave his horses their heads. They extended their stride in smooth harmony, only to round the first curve in the narrow road and find their way barred.

Their disciplined formation disintegrated into total disarray. Nick reacted instinctively, resisting the urge to yank at their delicate mouths as he fought for control. He roundly cursed the idiot who’d carelessly abandoned a gig in the centre of the road, blocking their path. The carriage swerved, rocking violently on its springs. Somehow he managed to avoid landing them in the fast-flowing river to their left as he recalled his leader to his responsibilities with a firm tug of the ribbons.

“The devil take it, what the hell’s going on here?”

Still cursing, he brought the four perfectly matched greys to a shuddering halt mere feet from the offending conveyance. His horses shuffled sideways in their traces, ready to take flight again at the slightest provocation. They tossed their heads, steam rising from their quarters, ears flapping in recognition of Nick’s soothing voice. The cob harnessed between the gig’s shafts, on the other hand, was totally unmoved by all the commotion. It was grazing at the side of the road and glanced with disinterest at Nick’s carriage from beneath its shaggy fringe. The creature appeared blithely unaware of the accident it had almost caused by seeking out the lush grass on the opposite side of the road to which it had presumably been insecurely tethered.

Gibson scowled. “What the devil’s that thing doing there?” He was still seated beside Nick on the box seat of the barouche, his implacably calm demeanour a testament to his faith in Nick’s abilities as a whip.

“Perhaps there’s been an accident.”

Nick was prepared to be charitable, even though he knew disaster had been avoided by a combination of good fortune and a cool head. He jumped down and ran a hand over each of his team’s legs in turn, relieved to find no heat in their joints suggestive of strained tendons.

“Perhaps, but it don’t seem likely. That gig’s not damaged and nor is the nag harnessed to it. But,” Gibson added darkly, “that’s a situation wot could soon be rectified.”

Nick left Gibson to keep the horses calm and went in search of the owner of the offending vehicle. He strode across the road, following the sound of voices coming from a nearby thicket, ready to tear the malefactor off a strip. As he paused to listen, he detected the soft tones of a woman’s voice and the deeper rumble of an adolescent male.

“Hold her steady if you can, Will. I almost have it.”

“Will she be all right, miss?”

“She will if I have any say in the matter.”

The woman sounded both angry and full of determination. Nick’s own anger at the manner in which she’d so carelessly abandoned her transportation was still clouding his mind as he descended the steep riverbank and moved closer to her position. He was keen to see what so occupied her attention that she’d blocked the road in her anxiety to attend to it. He made no effort to move quietly, but she was so taken up with her task that she didn’t appear to realise he was there.

Nick swore volubly when he discerned the cause of her anxiety. It was nothing more than a scrawny rabbit caught in a trap. His valuable horses could have been badly injured for the sake of a damned rabbit! It defied belief.

He looked again to make sure he wasn’t seeing things. No, it was definitely a rabbit, and it had its leg caught in a snare. It was clearly in acute pain and half scared out of its wits. The woman was trying to twist the vicious-looking trap clear of its leg. She was taking infinite care, speaking reassuringly to the captive, but the snare was too strong for her to break its hold.

“It’s no good, Will,” she said with a frustrated sigh. “It appears to be stuck fast and I don’t have the strength to—”

“It would be a greater kindness to put it out of its misery by wringing its neck.”

The woman started violently and her companion, equally discomposed, almost dropped the rabbit.

Investing his tone with a wealth of sarcasm, he stepped up to her. “And if it means you’ll move that nag of yours out of my path, I’ll be glad to provide you with that small service. Presumably you’re too squeamish to attend to the matter yourself?”

“I’m not trying to kill it, you idiot! I wish to save the poor animal, and your creeping up on us like a thief in the night almost made us do it further harm.” She glared at him, her expression hostile. “Whatever did you suppose you were about?”

Nick was so taken aback that it took a moment for him to realise her remark had actually been intended for him. His Grace the Duke of Dorchester was accustomed to being pandered to. Obsequiousness came high on the list of attitudes he was compelled to endure. Deferential, sycophantic and unctuous behaviour was also much in evidence in his dealings with the lower classes. He must have become immune to it all over the years because he couldn’t remember the last time anyone had dared to refer to him as an idiot. At least, not to his face. Even Gibson, who felt he’d earned the right to speak his mind, wouldn’t go so far. His anger drained away in the face of the woman’s refreshing attitude and he decided to help her anyway.

“Here, allow me.”

He took the strong wire from her fingers and twisted. It barely moved. He glanced at her in surprise.

“Yes, indeed.” She nodded vigorously, her eyes alight with fiery anger. “The poachers around these parts are as desperate as they are devious. They don’t give the poor animals a chance.”

“And you thought you’d be able to free the creature unaided?”

“There’s no call for such scepticism.” She tossed her head, eyes now flashing with indignation. Her attitude left Nick with the distinct impression that she had little time for members of the opposite gender who thought themselves superior in the ways of the countryside. “I’ve done it successfully several times before. There’s a technique to it. It requires more than mere brute force. Even a female can manage it, with patience and an obliging captive, which this poor rabbit appears to be.”

Nick raised a brow, starkly cynical. “I admire your optimism but fear you’re chasing a lost cause.”

“Nonsense! The rabbit suffers more with every second we delay but I
shall
free her. This is how it’s done. Look.” She moved closer to him. “You must unthread the wire, through that gap there. That’s the difficult part. No, not like that! It will tighten if you turn it in that direction.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“Because the animal would naturally move that way to escape. The poachers understand that and know it will doom itself. Yes, now you have it.” She nodded, apparently satisfied with his clumsy fumbling. The abrupt movement of her head dislodged a few loose curls from the ribbon which was supposed to be holding them back. They fell across her face and she pushed them impatiently aside. “Now, simply pull the wire away. Gently now, don’t distress the poor thing unnecessarily.”

The wire snapped away from the rabbit’s leg. It was badly injured but not, according to his as-yet-unnamed companion, broken.

“It is as I’d hoped.” The woman bestowed a reassuring smile upon the animal. “We’ll be able to make her well again soon enough, Will.”

She pulled the shawl from around her shoulders and wrapped the rabbit in it, cradling it against her chest. Amazingly, it seemed happy enough with that situation and made no effort to escape. She stroked its ears and cooed at it. Not once had she so much as looked in Nick’s direction and had yet to thank him for his assistance.

Amused rather than offended, he took a moment to assess the rabbit’s benefactress. Early twenties was his estimate of her age. She was of above average height, dressed in a serviceable gown of scarlet wool that had seen better days. There was no corset beneath it—he’d bet the duchy on that fact—but she filled the bodice very adequately without any artificial assistance. Her white petticoat showed beneath the hem of her gown, dripping with mud, presumably as a result of her foray onto the riverbank they were standing upon. Nick’s boots were similarly afflicted. In spite of the coolness of the day, she wore no pelisse and had sacrificed her shawl for the greater good of the rabbit without a thought for her own comfort.

Her hair was dark but not quite black. He’d already ascertained that the scarlet ribbon holding it back was woefully inadequate, and her tresses cascaded across her shoulders in a riot of insubordinate curls. There was no evidence of a bonnet or gloves. She looked dishevelled, as though she had more important things to do than concern herself with her appearance, a factor greatly in her favour from Nick’s perspective. He was rather enjoying her irreverent company and decided to delay the moment when he must reveal his identity, which would inevitably change everything.

He took advantage of her preoccupation with her patient to examine her face. She wasn’t handsome in the accepted sense. However, a serene quality of self-containment about her held his attention, and an intelligent light in her eyes suggested quiet strength of character. Her features could best be described as arresting. Her face was slightly tanned, lending proof to a preference for the outdoors. Freckles dusted her pert nose, presumably the price paid for cavorting about the countryside on a one-woman crusade to deprive local poachers of a dishonest living. Her chin was a little too long to lend her true beauty, and the ear peeping through that riot of curls was decidedly too large.

But Nick wasn’t about to hold such misfortunes of nature against the chit. He was swamped by beautiful wherever he went. It was a refreshing change to encounter one who didn’t conform to that pattern, both in appearance and in manner. Besides, this creature owned such compelling green eyes, currently full of compassion as she gazed upon the injured animal in her arms, that he’d have forgiven her just about anything. He’d already absolved her from blame for the accident she’d almost caused.

She must be the daughter of some local worthy. But whoever she was, she ought to remember her manners and display some gratitude toward him for assisting her. A method in which such a spirited chit might discharge that debt sprang spontaneously to mind. Nick felt himself hardening at the prospect and almost smiled in anticipation of the challenge he’d just set for himself.

Perhaps his sojourn here wouldn’t be such a massive waste of time after all. Being of relatively lowly birth, the girl was probably unaware of the obligation she’d placed herself under when accepting his help. He’d enjoy educating her in that respect. And in other ways too. Afterward he’d reward her with a few trinkets, the like of which she’d never have anticipated owning in the normal scheme of things, and be on his way.

When she opened her mouth again, doubts filtered into his brain. She spoke in a refined manner and the lad deferred to her authority as a matter of course. His enigmatic companion was obviously well connected. Obliging females littered Nick’s path at every turn. The disappointment he experienced when he realised this one was very likely forbidden fruit was surprisingly profound.

“Do I have the honour of addressing Miss Woodley?”

She must have forgotten all about him in her anxiety for the rabbit because her eyes widened at the sound of his voice. She turned in his direction, openly assessing him. Amusement lit her expression as her eyes roved from his mud-splattered boots, taking in his tight-fitting inexpressibles, caped driving coat and finally coming to rest on his hat. Her smile broadened, indicating that, far from being cowed by unexpectedly conversing with a gentleman of high birth, she found the situation diverting.

“And you’re the Duke of Dorchester, I collect.”

Without waiting for a response she executed a surprisingly graceful curtsey, given that she was still clutching the rabbit. It ought to have looked ridiculous but somehow conveyed the impression of being just the opposite. She chuckled, presumably in response to his quizzical expression.

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