“Oh, Thatcher, there you are,” Tally said, coming to a stop in the middle of her brother-in-law’s study, having not even bothered to knock. She supposed if he were any other duke, not the man who’d once been their footman, she’d have to view him as the toplofty and unapproachable Duke of Hollindrake as everyone else did.
Thankfully, Thatcher never expected her to stand on formality.
The room was cast in shadows, which perfectly matched her gloomy mood over being a pawn in her sister’s outrageous plans.
“One of the maids said she saw a carriage arrive,” she began, “some wretchedly poor contraption that couldn’t belong to one of Felicity’s guests and I thought it might be my missing…”
Her voice trailed off as Brutus came trotting up behind her, having stopped on the way down the stairs to give a footman’s boot a bit of a chew. Her ever-present companion had paused for only a second before he let out a little growl, then launched himself toward a spot in a shadowed corner, as if he’d spied a rat.
No, make that a very ill-looking pair of boots.
Oh, dear! Tally had bungled this. But how was she to know that Thatcher had company. She tamped down the blush that started to rise on her cheeks, remembering that she’d just insulted this unknown visitor’s carriage.
Oh, dash it all! What had she called it?
Some wretchedly poor contraption . . .
Tally shot a glance at Thatcher, who nodded toward the shadows, even as a man rose up from the chair there. Immediately, the world as Tally knew it tilted. For seeing this man rise up was like watching one of the Greek sculptures Lord Hamilton had been forever collecting in Naples come to life.
In silhouette, his tall form, long limbs and broad chest were an artist’s dream. Hers especially.
If only Thatcher’s study wasn’t so bloody dark!
Then again, Tally didn’t really need to see the man, whose boot Brutus had attached himself to, to know him.
A shiver ran down her spine, like a forebear of something momentous. She couldn’t breathe, she couldn’t move, and she knew, just knew, her entire life was about to change.
It made no sense, but then again, Tally had never put much stock in sense, common or otherwise.
Hadn’t their Nanny Jamilla always said it would happen just like this? That one day she’d come face to face with the man who was her destiny and she’d just know?
Even without being able to see his face, she supposed.
Perhaps it was because her heart thudded to a halt just by the way he stood, so tall and erect, even with a devilish little affenpinscher affixed to his boot.
Heavens! With Brutus thus, how could this man ever move forward?
“Oh, dear! Brutus, you rag-mannered mutt, come away from there,” she said, pasting her best smile on her face and wishing that she wasn’t wearing one of Felicity’s old hand-me-down gowns. And blast Felicity for her tiresome meddling, for if she’d just left well enough alone and not insisted the trunks be changed around, Tally’s trunk wouldn’t have become lost.
“You wretched little dog, are you listening to me? Come here!” She snapped her fingers, and after one last, great growling chew, Brutus let go of his prize and returned to his usual place, at the hem of her gown, his black eyes fixed on the man, or rather his boots, as if waiting for any sign that he could return for another good bite.
“I am so sorry, sir,” Tally began. “I fear his manners are terrible, but I assure you his pedigree is impeccable. His grandsire belonged to Marie Antoinette.” She snapped her lips shut even as she realized she was rambling like a fool. Going on about Brutus’s royal connections like the worst sort of pandering mushroom.
“No offense taken, miss,” he said.
Tally shivered at the rich, masculine tones of his simple apology. It swept over her like a caress.
Then to her delight, he came closer, moving toward Thatcher’s desk with a cat-like grace, making her think of the men she’d imagined in her plays: prowling pirates and secretive spies. It was almost as if he was used to moving through shadows, aloof and confident in his own power.
Tally tamped down another shiver and leaned over to pick up Brutus, holding him tightly as if he could be the anchor she suddenly felt she needed.
Whatever was it about this man that had her feeling as if she were about to be swept away? That he was capable of catching her up in his arms and stealing her away to some secluded room where he’d lock them both away. Then he’d toss her atop the bed and he’d strip away his jacket, his shirt, his…
Tally gulped back her shock.
What the devil is wrong with me? She hadn’t even seen the man yet, and here she was imagining him nearly in his altogether.
Until this moment, she’d never understood her sister’s obsession with Hollindrake or Pippin’s for Captain Dashwell, but she’d joined their ranks in the blink of an eye and even before she’d spied more than a hint of this incomparable stranger.
Oh, dear heavens, she prayed silently, please say he is here for the house party. Please…
“I daresay we have met,” she continued on trying to lure him forward, force him to speak again, “but you’ll have to excuse me, I’m a terrible widgeon when it comes to remembering names.”
The man stepped closer, but stopped his progress when the door opened and Staines arrived, a brace of candles in hand, and making a tsk, tsk sound over the lack of light in the room. The butler shot the duke a withering glance, that seemed to say, You are supposed to ring for more light.
Poor Thatcher, Tally thought. He still had yet to find his footing as the Duke of Hollindrake and all that it entailed.
As the butler and the two footmen traveling in his wake went about the room lighting candles and illuminating the corners.
Oh, just a few candles more and she’d see her future…
“Have we met?” she asked, and to further her cause, she shifted Brutus to one hip and stuck out her hand, which must compel the man, if he was a gentleman, to take the final steps into the circle of light.
“No, I don’t believe we have ever met, Miss—”
Oh, heavens, his voice was as smooth as the French brandy she and Felicity used to steal from their teacher’s wine cabinet. And it would be even better if he were whispering into her ear.
Tally, my love, what is it you desire most . . .
Oh, now you are being a complete widgeon, she chided herself, closing her eyes, for she couldn’t believe she was having such thoughts over a perfect stranger. A man she’d never seen. She only hoped this ridiculous tumult he was causing on her insides wasn’t showing on her face.
Taking a deep breath, she unshuttered her lashes and gaped in horror at the man before her. This was her future? Her destiny? No! It couldn’t be.
Certainly not the man she’d imagined.
Whoever was this ordinary, rather dowdy looking fellow blinking owlishly at her from behind a pair of dirty spectacles, his shoulders stooped over as if he’d carried the burden of the world upon them?
Where had he come from? She leaned over to peer past him, searching for any sign of the man she’d expected, but there was no one else there.
Tally swayed a bit. Heavens, she was seeing things. If she didn’t know better, she’d say she was as jug-bitten as their London housekeeper, Mrs. Hutchinson.
But no, all the evidence was before her, for instead of some rakish character in a Weston jacket and perfectly polished boots, stood a gentleman (well, she hoped he was at least a gentleman) in a coat that could best be described as lumpy, cut of some poorly dyed wool, with sleeves too short for his arms. Far too short, for his cuffs stuck out a good four inches. Then to her horror, she glanced at his cravat, or rather where his cravat should be.
For in its place sat a vicar’s collar.
Tally’s heart stopped for a second time, and not for the same reasons as earlier. She looked at his throat again convinced she’d been mistaken. He couldn’t be a…
Oh, gads, she’d nearly made a cake of herself over a… a.. vicar.
She gulped back her mortification. How could I have been so mistaken…