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     Any Duchess Will Do

       part  #4 of  Spindle Cove Series  by  Tessa Dare / Romance & Love
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Any Duchess Will Do
Page 1
Chapter One

Griff cracked open a single eyelid. A bright stab of pain told him he’d made a grave mistake. He quickly shut his eye again and put a hand over it, groaning.

Something had gone horribly wrong.

He needed a shave. He needed a bath. He might need to be sick. Attempts to summon any recollection of the previous evening resulted in another sharp slice of agony.

He tried to ignore the throb in his temples and focused on the tufted, plush surface under his back. It wasn’t his bed. Perhaps not even a bed at all. Was it just a trick of his nausea, or was the damned thing moving?

“Griff. ” The voice came to him through a thick, murky haze. It was muffled, but unmistakably female.

God’s knees, Halford. The next time you decide to bed a woman after a months-long drought, at least stay sober enough to remember it afterward.

He cursed his stupidity. The epic duration of his celibacy was no doubt the reason he’d been tempted by . . . whoever she was. He had no idea of her name or her face. Just a vague impression of a feminine presence nearby. He inhaled and smelled perfume of an indeterminate, expensive sort.

Damn. He’d need jewels to get out of this, no doubt.

Something dull and pointed jabbed his side. “Wake up. ”

Did he know that voice? Keeping one hand clapped over his eyes, he fumbled about with the other hand. He caught a handful of heavy silk skirt and skimmed his touch downward until his fingers closed around a stocking-clad ankle. Sighing a little in apology, he rubbed his thumb up and down.

A squawk of feminine outrage assailed his ears. An unyielding object cracked him over the head, but hard. Now to the pounding and throbbing in his skull, he could add ringing.

“Griffin Eliot York. Really. ”

Bloody hell.

Forget the headache and piercing sunlight, he bolted upright—bashing his head again, this time on the low ceiling. Blinking, he confirmed the unthinkable truth. He wasn’t in his bedchamber—or any bedchamber—but in the coach. And the woman seated across from him was all too familiar, with the double strand of rubies at her throat and her elegant sweep of silver hair.

They stared at one another in mutual horror.

“Mother?”

She smacked him again with her collapsed parasol. “Wake up. ”

“I’m awake, I’m awake. ” When she readied another blow, he held up his hands in surrender. “Good God. I may never sleep again. ”

Though the air in the coach was oven-warm, he shuddered. Now he most definitely needed a bath.

He peered out the window and saw nothing but vast expanses of rolling green, dappled with cloud-shaped shadows. The coach’s truncated shadow indicated midday.

“Where the devil are we? And why?”

He tried to piece together memories of the previous evening. This was hardly the first time he’d woken in unfamiliar surroundings, head ringing and stomach achurn . . . but it was the first time in a good long while. He thought he’d put this sort of debauchery behind him. So what had happened?

He hadn’t imbibed more than his usual amount of wine at dinner. By the fish course, however, he seemed to recall the china’s acanthus pattern undulating. Swimming before his eyes.

After that, he recalled . . . nothing.

Damn. He’d been drugged.

Kidnapped.

He snapped to alert, bracing his boots on the carriage floorboards.

Whoever his captors were, he must assume they were armed. He was without a blade, without a gun—but he had eager fists, honed reflexes, and a rapidly clearing head. On his own, he would have given himself even chances. But the bastards had taken his mother, too.

“Do not be alarmed,” he told her.

“Oh, I wouldn’t dream of it. Bad for the complexion. ” She touched the double strand of rubies at her throat.

Those rubies. They gave him pause.

What shoddy excuse for a kidnapper used the family coach and left the captive wearing several thousand pounds’ worth of jewels?

Devil take it.

“You. ”

“Hm?” His mother raised her eyebrows, all innocence.

“You did this. You put something in my wine at dinner and stuffed me in the carriage. ” He pushed a hand through his hair. “My God. I can’t believe you. ”

She looked out the window and shrugged. Or rather, she gave the duchess version of a shrug—a motion that didn’t involve anything so common or gauche as the flexing of shoulder muscles, but merely a subtle tilt of the head. “You’d never have come if I asked. ”

Incredible.

Griff closed his eyes. Times like these, he supposed he ought to remind himself that a man only had one mother, and his mother only had one son, and she’d carried him in her womb and toiled in labor and so on and so forth. But he did not wish to think about her womb right now—not when he was still trying, desperately, to forget that she possessed ankles.

“Where are we?” he asked.

“Sussex. ”

Sussex. One of the few counties in England where he didn’t claim any property. “And what is the purpose of this urgent errand?”

A faint smile curved her lips. “We’re going to meet your future bride. ”

He stared at his mother. Many moments passed before he could manage coherent speech.

“You are a scheming, fiendish woman with entirely too much time at leisure. ”

“And you are the eighth Duke of Halford,” she returned. “I know that doesn’t mean much to you. The disgraces at Oxford, the gambling, the years of aimless debauchery . . . You seem determined to be nothing more than an unfortunate blot on the distinguished Halford legacy. At the very least, start on the next generation while I still have time to mold it. You have a responsibility to—”

“To continue the line. ” He closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. “So I’ve been told. Again and again. ”

“You’ll be five-and-thirty this year, Griffy. ”

“Yes. Which makes me much too old to be called ‘Griffy. ’ ”

“More to the point, I am fifty-eight. I need grandchildren before my decline. It’s not right for two generations of the family to be drooling at the same time. ”

“Your decline?” He laughed. “Tell me, Mother, how can I hasten that happy process? Other than offering a firm push. ”

Her eyebrow arched in amusement. “Just try it. ”

Griff sighed. His mother was . . . his mother. There was no other woman in England like her, and the rest of the world had better pray God had broken the mold. Like the jewels she delighted in wearing, Judith York was a formidable blend of exterior polish and inner fire.

For most of the year, they led entirely separate lives. They only resided in the same house for these few months of the London season. Apparently, even that was too much.

“I’ve been patient,” she said. “Now I’m desperate. You must marry, and it must be soon. I’ve tried to find the most accomplished young beauties in England to tempt you. And I did, but you ignored them. I finally realized the answer is not quality. It’s quantity. ”

“Quantity? Are you taking me to some free-love utopian commune where men are permitted as many wives as they please?”

“Don’t be ridiculous. ”

“I was being hopeful. ”

Her lip curled in a delicate scowl. “You’re terrible. ”

“Thank you. I work hard at it. ”

“So I’ve often lamented. If only you applied the same effort toward . . . anything else. ”

Griff closed his eyes. If there was any conversation more tired and repetitive than the “When will you ever marry?” debate, it was the “You’re a grave disappointment” harangue. Only in this family would it be considered “disappointing” to successfully oversee a vast fortune, six estates, several hundred employees, and thousands of tenants. Impressive, by most standards. But in the Halford line? Not quite enough. Unless a man was reforming Parliament or discovering a new trade route to Patagonia, he just didn’t measure up.

He glanced out the window again. They seemed to be entering a sort of village. He slid open the glass pane and discovered he could smell the sea. A salted-blue freshness mingled with the greener scents of countryside.

“It is a prettyish sort of place,” his mother said. “Very tidy and quiet. I can understand why it’s so popular with the young ladies. ”

The coach rolled to a halt in the center of the village, near a wide, pleasant green that ringed a grand medieval church. He peered out the window, gazing in all directions. The place was far too small to be Brighton or . . .

“Wait a minute. ” A vile suspicion formed in his mind.

Surely she hadn’t . . .

She wouldn’t.

The liveried footman opened the coach door. “Good day, your graces. We’ve reached Spindle Cove. ”

“Oh, bollocks. ”

When the fancy coach came trundling down the lane, Pauline scarcely gave it a glance. Many a fine carriage had come down that same road, bringing one visitor or another to the village. A holiday in Spindle Cove was said to cure any gently bred lady’s crisis of confidence.

But Pauline wasn’t a gently bred lady, and her trials were more practical in nature. Such as the fact that she’d just stumbled into a murky puddle, splashing her hem with mud.

And that her sister was near tears for the second time that morning.

“The list,” Daniela said. “It’s not here. ”

Drat. Pauline knew they didn’t have time to go back to the farm. She was due at the tavern in minutes. This was Saturday—the day of the Spindle Cove ladies’ weekly salon, and the Bull and Blossom’s busiest day of the week. Mr. Fosbury was a fair-minded employer, but he docked wages for tardiness. And Father noticed.

Frantic, Daniela fished in her pocket. Her eyes welled with tears. “It’s not here. It’s not here. ”

“Never mind. I remember it. ” Shaking the muddy droplets from her skirts, Pauline ticked the items off in her memory. “Dried currants, worsted thread, a bit of sponge. Oh, and powdered alum. Mother needs it for pickling. ”

When they entered the Brights’ All Things shop, they found it packed to bursting. While the visiting ladies met for their weekly salon, the villagers purchased their dry goods. Villagers like Mrs. Whittlecombe, a cobwebby old widow who only left her decrepit farmhouse once a week to stock up on comfits and “medicinal” wine. The woman gave them a disdainful sniff as Pauline and Daniela wedged their way into the shop.

Pauline could just make out two flashes of white-blond hair on the other side of the counter. Sally Bright was busy with customers three deep, and her younger brother Rufus ran back and forth from the storeroom.

Fortunately, the Simms sisters had been friends with the Bright family since as far back as any of them could remember. They needn’t wait to be helped.

“Put the eggs away,” Pauline told her sister. “I’ll fetch the sponge and thread from the storeroom. You get the currants and alum. Two measures of currants, one of alum. ”

Daniela carefully set the basket of brown speckled eggs on the counter and went to a row of bins. Her lips moved as she scanned for the one labeled CURRANTS. Then she frowned with concentration as she sifted the contents into a rolled cone of brown paper.

Once she’d seen her sister settle to the task, Pauline gathered the needed items from the back. When she returned, Daniela was waiting with goods in hand.

“Too much alum,” Pauline said, inspecting. “It was meant to be just one measure. ”

“Oh. Oh, no. ”

“It’s all right,” she said in a calm voice. “Easily mended. Just put the extra back. ”

She hoped her sister didn’t notice the sneering expression on old Mrs. Whittlecombe’s face.

“I don’t know that I can continue to give this shop my custom,” the old woman said. “Allowing half-wits behind the counter. ”
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