Home > The Duchess Deal (Girl Meets Duke #1)(8)

The Duchess Deal (Girl Meets Duke #1)(8)
Author: Tessa Dare

This particular duke was none of those things. Despite his many, many faults, Ashbury was strong, in the prime of life, and he smelled divine. He offered her security, at least one child to dote upon . . .

And a house.

A quiet house of her own in the country. Precisely the thing that would allow her to help Miss Palmer, at a time when the poor girl had no one else.

The duke slowed to a halt. “By the Holy Rood. This isn’t right.”

Drat. That would teach her to dream, even for a second. He’d come to his senses after all. This was the moment where he sent her away, and she ended an old woman on the docks, darning sailors’ shirts for ha’pennies and muttering about how she might have been a duchess.

“We’re in the middle of St. James Park,” he said.

“Are we?” She took in their surroundings. Autumn-browned grass. The half-bare branches of trees. “I suppose we are. What’s a Holy Rood?”

“The cross of Christ. And you call yourself a vicar’s daughter? You father would be appalled.”

“Believe me, that wouldn’t be a new development.”

“Just where is it you live, anyway?”

“In an attic garret, two doors down from the shop.”

“So we’re here because . . .”

She bit her lip. “I was hoping to lose you. But I’ve since changed my mind.”

“Damned right you have.” With gruff impatience, he drew her to his side, steering her with a hand to the small of her back. “Do you know what kind of scum lurks in St. James Park by night?”

“Not really.”

“Pray you do not have occasion find out.”

“It’s barely nightfall yet. I’m certain we’ll be—”

She didn’t have a chance to complete the thought. A pair of men emerged from the shadows, almost as though the duke had hired them precisely to prove his point.

And from the looks on their faces, the men were expecting to be paid.

 

 

Chapter Four

 


Ash hated always being right.

He positioned himself between the men and Emma, keeping one hand on her back and clutching his walking stick with the other. “Well?” he goaded. “Get to it, already. Tell me what it is you want, so that I can tell you to get stuffed, and we can all carry on with our lives. I’ve a full schedule this evening.”

“Toss over the purse, guv. Watches and rings, too.”

“Get stuffed. There, now. See how easy that was?” He slid his arm around Emma’s shoulders. “We’ll be going.”

The second man held up a knife. “Hold there. I wouldn’t try anything clever.”

“I should hope you wouldn’t,” Ash replied dryly. “You’d no doubt injure yourself in the attempt.”

The man with the knife feinted, jabbing it in the direction of Ash’s ribs. “Shut it. And give up your coins and baubles, unless you fancy bleedin’ to death in front o’ your bit of skirt.”

His bit of skirt?

“Not to worry, miss.” The first man chuckled, winding a length of rope around one of his hands and pulling it tight with the other. “We’ll be glad to take you off the gentleman’s ’ands.”

A savage growl rose in Ash’s throat. “Like the devil you will.” Brandishing his walking stick like a sword, he sliced the air in a wide arc, forcing the footpads back. “Touch her and you will pay with your lives, you diseased, maggoty curs.”

He’d gone beyond anger, sailed straight past rage, and crashed into a place of primal fury, where blood ran in colors he hadn’t known to exist.

The blade glinted in the gathering dark. Its owner lunged, but Ash stepped to the side, pushing Emma back with his free arm. With a vicious strike, he sent the blackguard to his knees. The knife tumbled into the grass.

Whirling around, he raised his walking stick again, preparing to deal the other cutpurse a backhand blow, hard enough to crush bone.

Before he could swing, a gust of wind dislodged his hat.

In unison, the thieves recoiled.

“Sweet Jesus,” one of them whispered.

“Christ ’ave mercy,” the other said, scrambling backward on his hands and feet. “’Tis the Devil, to be sure.”

Ash stilled, fuming with a wrath that burned his lungs and holding his stick poised for violence. However, violence no longer appeared necessary. After a tense silence, he lowered the stick. “Begone.”

Neither of them dared to move.

“Begone!” he roared. “Slink home like the craven whoresons you are, or I swear to you, you will beg for the Devil to take your souls.”

They scrambled and fled. No victory had ever been so hollow.

On returning to London, Ash had harbored a small hope that he might not look quite so monstrous as his few interactions had led him to believe. Maybe Annabelle was just Annabelle—shallow and prizing appearances above all else. Perhaps his former friends truly had been too busy to visit more than once, and the majority of his servants really had needed to visit far-flung relations who’d suddenly taken ill.

Maybe—just maybe—the scars weren’t that bad.

He’d been deluding himself. That much was now clear. His appearance was every bit as repulsive as he’d feared, if not worse. Those were hardened criminals he’d sent scurrying like rats into the gutter. And he expected a quick-witted, lovely young woman to rejoice at his offer of marriage?

Everyone would revile him. No woman with any sense would have him. When he turned, Emma would be gone. He was certain of it.

He knew nothing.

She was still there, wielding a tree branch in both hands as she stared after the retreating brigands. His cloak had slipped from her shoulders. Her breaths made angry clouds of vapor in the cold air.

At length, she dropped the branch, then moved to retrieve his hat from where it had landed a few feet distant. “Are you unharmed?”

Ash stared at her in bewilderment. Her question didn’t make sense. None of this made any sense.

She’d not only not run, she’d prepared to defend him—absurd as that was. He didn’t know what to do with her, and he didn’t have the faintest notion what to do with himself. He couldn’t help but feel . . .

He couldn’t help but feel. All manner of emotions, and all of them at once.

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