When first encountering a duke a young lady should try not to be sitting at the bottom of an excavation holding a skull…
…especially when said duke has just fallen into the hole you have dug. Verity Wingate might be a bishop’s daughter, but she has a secret past, an independent spirit and unconventional pastimes. And she despises lordly aristocrats who think ladies should be meek, well-behaved models of perfection.
William Xavier Cosmo de Whitham Calthorpe, fourth Duke of Aylsham, is as perfect a duke as one might hope to meet and he intends it to stay that way. He has enough trouble dealing with his brood of ill-disciplined half-siblings and he is planning on finding the perfect duchess, just as soon as he is out of mourning for his grandfather. The infuriating Miss Wingate is everything he dislikes in a woman, which is inconvenient as he finds her provokingly attractive. The Perfect Duke can rise above such things, of course – until his appalling brothers and sisters take a hand and Miss Wingate is comprehensively compromised.
The problem is, the maddening female won’t accept that marriage is the only option. Whatever is a duke to do?
There was very little warning, only a long shadow falling across her as a body crashed down into her excavation slicing into the mound. Verity lunged forward, grabbed at the skull and rocked back on her heels as the man landed in front of her with a grunt, one short, sharp Anglo-Saxon expletive and a loud rattle of stones.
Silence. It was neither a thunderbolt nor a fallen angel facing her, either of which might have been easier to deal with. The dust settled, leaving her staring at a fair-haired man, blue eyes narrowed against the light, mouth set with either discomfort or fury. Very likely both. He was dressed in expensive, simple and utterly appropriate country clothing, now filthy.
Utterly appropriate. I know who you are. Oh no…
His handsome face contorted in a wince of pain and she realised why. As social disasters went, this ranked high.
‘Sir, I fear you may be sitting on a tooth.’ Not the correct form of address, but as we have not been introduced…
Those blue eyes narrowed a little further as he shifted onto his right hip, reached underneath his coat tails and produced a human jaw bone. ‘A tooth? Singular?’ he enquired. Then his gaze shifted to what she was cradling against her bosom. ‘Madam, you appear to be holding a skull. A human skull.’
‘Yes,’ Verity agreed. Presumably he was being sarcastic with the appear. It could hardly be mistaken for anything else. ‘I am and it is. Is the jaw bone undamaged? I mean, are you unhurt?’ There was no really ladylike way of asking a duke if his left buttock had been wounded by an Ancient Briton. It was absolutely out of the question to snatch the jaw from him to check that it was intact. The bone, that is.
‘I am sure it is nothing serious, Madam. I apologise for my language earlier.’ It would be much easier to deal with this if he had shown the anger he must be feeling. Or even moaned in acknowledgement of the pain. As it was, the conversation might as well be happening at Almack’s. The Duke shifted his long legs as though to stand.
‘No!’ She took a breath and moderated the volume. ‘Please stay exactly where you are or you will damage the sides. Just allow me to move everything.’ Verity placed the skull carefully in the box of hay she had prepared for it and held out her hand for the jaw. When that was safe she scooted back, gathered her skirts around her ankles and stood up.
The Duke, being a gentleman, had averted his gaze. He was probably too cross to consider ogling her in any case. Verity ignored the urge to see exactly what would provoke him into behaving improperly and waited while he rose to his feet in an enviably effortless and controlled manner. He is the youngest duke, not yet thirty and he has no vices to mar that fine figure. Her cousin Roderick had told her about the man who was now Duke of Aylsham. His reputation had been built up over many years of being merely the impeccable Lord Calthorpe and apparently the man was a by-word for acting with absolute propriety under all circumstances.
They call him Lord Appropriate, Roddy had written about eighteen months ago in the course of one of his chatty, gossip-filled letters. Of course, his father the Marquess is eccentric to put it very kindly and his stepmother is a notorious bluestocking, so it was probably a relief to be rescued by his grandfather who took him to live with him when Calthorpe was a boy. The old Duke is the stiffest stickler for what is due to his position that you may imagine but, even so, Calthorpe appears to have gone to extremes to conform. One day he will be the starchiest duke in the kingdom. He has even managed a duel with perfect correctness – a lady was insulted, he issued a challenge, deloped, shook hands with the other man even though he did not delope, merely missed, and refused to gossip afterwards. Inhuman, I call it.
It seemed she was responsible for shaking an entirely improper oath out of the man, in addition to ruining his lovely (but tastefully well-worn) clothes, scraping his expensive boots and biting, by proxy, his perfect ducal backside. And it probably is perfect, judging by how fit he seems. Those thighs…
At least he was capable of standing and nothing appeared to be broken. Verity told herself to wait until after the Duke had gone before she fussed over her careful excavation through the tumulus. ‘You are probably wondering what I am doing?’ she said. The very way he was not looking at her outfit of plain skirt, laced boots and tweed jacket conveyed perfectly his shock at seeing a gentlewoman so attired. Goodness knows where her straw hat had gone.
‘I was surprised to find my Druidical monument bisected, I must confess,’ he said, perfectly courteous, but without a hint of a smile. ‘I was even more surprised to discover that it was being fileted by a lady.’
Verity opened her mouth, shut it again, taken aback by just how much she wanted to shake the man. He was polite. He was, not to put too fine a point on it, a supremely decorative example of his sex. But all she wanted was to shock another swear word out of him, or a smile, or an admission by so much as a flicker of an eyelid that he had glanced at her ankles as she stood up. His manner was perfectly correct, but she could tell, as clearly as if he had said so, that he thoroughly disapproved of her and thought her occupation bizarre and unseemly.
Oh, the horror of it! A female engaged in an intellectual pursuit involving engaging her brain and getting her hands dirty! Civilisation as he knows it will probably come to an end at any moment.
‘I am sorry to contradict you, Sir, but it is not your monument, it is our monument. I have been most careful to excavate a section through this side of it only. My side. I am not convinced it has any connection at all with the Druids and I am most certainly not fileting it. This is a precise excavation conducted according to the most modern antiquarian principles. I can lend you the relevant papers on the subject if you are interested.’ She smiled, the kind of winsome, ladylike smile she had once reserved for tea parties at the Bishop’s Palace before Papa retired. The Duke was an intelligent man, she was sure. He would recognise a lightly-disguised snarl when he saw one.