The Duke’s Bridle Path
Two Regency novellas of true love deep in the English countryside….Legend says that the first gentleman a lady kisses on the Duke’s Bridle Path will become her true love. Grace Burrowes and Theresa Romain say it’s not that easy…
In His Grace for the Win, by Grace Burrowes, Philippe, Duke of Lavelle, has sworn off all things equestrian after his brother’s riding accident. Just one tiny problem: The woman who steals Philippe’s heart, Harriet Talbot, loves horses, and generally only notices men when they’re in the saddle. Will Philippe rise to the challenge, or come a cropper for the sake of true love?
In Desperately Seeking Scandal, by Theresa Romain, ambitious London reporter Colin Goddard follows a trail of scandal to the Lavelle seat in Berkshire, hoping to save his career with articles on how to snare a wealthy spouse. What was intended as a humorous series turns seductive, as Lady Ada Ellis, sister to the duke, uncovers Colin’s true purpose and challenges him to a battle of wits…and wills, and hearts. But if they fall in love, one of them will lose everything. Who will triumph?
Enjoy An Excerpt
“Will I see you at the race meets, Your Grace?”
Lowered lashes and an arch smile suggested Lady Ambrosia Warminster wanted to see every naked inch of Philippe Albinus Bartholomew Coape Dodge Ellis, twelfth Duke of Lavelle.
Many ladies sought the same objective—those inches were handsome, titled, and wealthy, after all. Alas for the fair lady, an equestrian gathering was the last place anybody was likely to find Philippe.
He took Lady Ambrosia’s proffered hand and fired off a melting smile.
“I’ve neglected my acres, my dear, and must forgo the pleasure of even your company to make amends with my dear sister. Might I ask where you’ll spend the Yuletide holidays?”
He kept hold of her hand and looked hopeful, that being the protocol when declining an assignation, or when dodging the forcible trip to the altar such an encounter would likely cost him.
“Papa hasn’t decided, or Mama hasn’t,” she said, retrieving her hand.
Philippe let her hand go, slowly. “I will live in hope of a waltz next season. Please give my felicitations to your family.”
Add a touch of eyebrow, a slight flaring of the nostrils—Philippe’s older brother, Jonas, had taught him that bit—allow the lady to be the first to turn away, and… With a curtsey and a smile, she was off, pretending to see a dear, dear friend on the other side of Lady Pembroke’s music room.
“How do you do that?” Seton Avery, Lord Ramsdale, had been born with a pathological inability to whisper. He growled quietly, or not so quietly. On rare occasions, he roared.
“How do I avoid capture?” Philippe asked. “I give the ladies a little of what they want—my attention—and they give me what I want.”
“Their hearts?” Ramsdale wore the expression Philippe usually saw when they were sharing an interesting game of chess.
“My freedom. You are coming out to Theale Hall with me next week?”
Ramsdale lifted two glasses of champagne from a passing footman’s tray and handed one to Philippe.
“If I allow you to abandon me in Town, the disconsolate widows and hopeful debutantes will turn their gunsights on me. One shudders to contemplate the fate of a mere belted earl under such circumstances.”
Ramsdale grew restless as autumn came on, while Philippe felt the pull of his family seat, despite the memories. Ada bided there, doing more than her share to manage the estate, and Philippe owed his sister companionship at this time of year above all others.
“Then have your belted self ready to depart no later than Wednesday,” Philippe said. “The nights grow brisk, and harvest will soon begin in Berkshire.”
Ramsdale lifted his glass a few inches. “Of course, Your Grace. My pleasure, Your Most Sublime Dukeship. We’ll take that rolling pleasure dome you call a traveling coach?”
When did Philippe travel a significant distance by any other means? “If it’s raining, you’re welcome to make the journey in the saddle.”
“And deprive you of my company? Don’t be daft. Let’s leave on Tuesday. I’ve grown bored with Town, and the debutantes circle ever closer.”
“Monday,” Philippe said. “We’ll leave Monday at the crack of dawn.”
“Such a beauty,” Lord Dudley cooed. “Such lovely quarters and elegant lines, such a kind eye. Makes a man itch to get her under saddle.”
Titled men seldom rode mares, and thus his lordship’s innuendo was about as subtle as the scent of a full muck cart. Harriet Talbot stroked the mare’s shoulder, silently apologizing to the horse.
Utopia deserved better than a strutting clodpate.
“Shall I return her to her stall?” Harriet raised her voice to aim the question at her father, who was leaning heavily on his cane near the paddock gate.
“Your lordship?” Papa asked. “Have you seen enough? She’s a superior lady’s mount and enjoys working over fences. At the fashionable hour, she’ll make an elegant impression, and she’ll be eager to hack out of a fine morning.”
Please don’t buy her. Please, please do not buy this mare.
“She’s very pretty,” Dudley said, “very well put together. I like her eye.”
Harriet did not like the covetous look in Dudley’s eye. “While I commend your judgment, my lord, I hope you realize that she’s not up to your weight. I was under the impression—we were, rather—that you were looking for a guest mount for a lady.”
For one of his mistresses, in fact. Dudley’s stable master had made that clear. “Utopia has some growing yet to do,” Harriet went on, “some muscling up. With another year or two of work, she’ll have more strength and stamina, but I’d advise against buying her for yourself.”
His lordship stroked the mare’s glossy backside. “Oh, but she’s a chestnut. I cut quite a dash on a chestnut.” And what lordling worth his port would make a decision based on a woman’s opinion?
Utopia switched her tail, just missing his lordship’s face. This would not end well for the viscount or the mare.
“We can find you another handsome chestnut,” Harriet said, before Papa could cut in with more praise for his lordship’s discernment. “Utopia needs a chance to finish growing before she’s competent to carry a man of your stature.”
The mare had the misfortune to be beautiful. Four white socks evenly matched, excellent conformation, a white blaze down the center of her face, and great bloodlines.
She was doomed to become some nobleman’s plaything, though she truly wasn’t large enough to handle Dudley.
She was also not patient or forgiving enough. His lordship was tall and portly, and while many a large or stout rider sat lightly in the saddle, Dudley’s horsemanship had all the grace of a beer wagon with a loose axle and a broken wheel.
“I do believe I shall take her,” Dudley said. “I’ll get her into condition and show her what’s what.”
The mare would be lame by the end of the year, possibly ruined beyond repair. Why had Papa agreed to show her to Lord Dunderhead?
“Papa,” Harriet called, raising her voice. “His lordship has declared himself smitten with Utopia. I’ll leave the bargaining to you.” And yet, Harriet had to give herself one glimmer of hope that the mare could yet enjoy a happy life. “Regardless of the terms you strike with my father, please recall that we stand behind every horse we sell. You may return her at any point in the next ninety days for a full refund, regardless of her condition.”
That term was Harriet’s invention, quietly tacked onto sales when she lacked confidence in the purchaser’s ability to keep the horse sound and happy. Several times, Harriet’s guarantee had spared an unhappy horse a sorry fate.
Papa took a different approach: Buying a horse was like speaking vows to a bride. The purchaser became responsible for the creature for life, to have and to hold, and to provide fodder, pasture, shelter, farriery, veterinary care, gear, grooming, and treats until such time as a subsequent sale, old age, or a merciful bullet terminated the obligation.
Papa was a romantic. Harriet hadn’t had that luxury since her mama had died five years ago.
“Take the filly back to her stall,” Papa said. “His lordship and I will enjoy a brandy in my study.”
“Brilliant!” Dudley replied, slapping Papa on the back and falling in step beside him. “She’ll be a prime goer in no time and the toast of the opening hunt.”
The mare would be back-sore before the first flight had pulled up to check for loose girths. Harriet was no great supporter of the hunt field, for it lamed many a fine horse while subjecting Reynard to needless suffering.
“Come along,” Harriet said to the mare. “I can still spoil you for a short while, and you’d best enjoy the time you have left here.” Dudley’s stablemen would take as good care of Utopia as they could and argue for her to be bred when she became unsound under saddle. The situation could be worse.
And yet, Harriet’s heart was heavy as she slipped off the mare’s bridle and buckled on the headstall. Five years ago, Papa would have listened to her when she’d warned against the likes of his lordship as a buyer for the mare.
Five years ago, Mama would have been alive to make him listen.
“There’s a gent waiting for you in the saddle room, miss,” Baxter, the new lad said. “Doesn’t look like the patient sort either.”
Gentlemen in search of horseflesh were seldom patient. “Did he give you a name?” Harriet asked, unbuckling Utopia’s girths.
“No, but he knew where he was going and knew not to intrude on your dealings with Milord Deadly.”
“Dudley,” Harriet muttered, though stable lads would assign barn names however they pleased.
A buyer who knew his way around the premises wasn’t to be kept waiting. Harriet handed the mare over to Baxter with instructions to get her out to the mares’ pasture for a few hours of grass before sunset.
Harriet peeled off her gloves, stuffed them into a pocket of her habit, and hoped whoever awaited her in the saddle room was a better rider than Lord Dead—Lord Dudley.
She tapped on the door, because wealthy gentlemen expected such courtesies even when on another’s premises, then swept inside with the confident stride of a woman who’d been horse-trading with her betters for ten years.
“Good day,” she said to the tall, broad-shouldered specimen standing by the window. “I’m Harriet Talbot. My father can join us shortly, but in his absence…”
The specimen turned, and Harriet’s brain registered what her body had been trying to tell her. She’d come to a halt halfway into the room, assailed by an odd sensation in the pit of her belly—happiness and anxiety, both trying to occupy the same space.
“Philippe. You’ve come home.”
He held out his arms, and Harriet rushed across the room, hugging him tightly. “Oh, you’ve come home, and you gave us no warning, and Papa will be so happy to see you.”
Harriet was ecstatic to see him, though her joy was bounded with heartache old and new. Old, because this was a courtesy call on Papa, a gesture of affection toward the late Duke of Lavelle’s retired horse master. New, because every time Harriet saw His Grace—His Current Grace, she must not think of him as Philippe—the gulf between them was a little wider, a little more impossible.
She was the first to step back, though he kept hold of her hand.
“Do you ever wear anything other than riding habits?” he asked.
“Yes. I often wear breeches, but you mustn’t tell anybody.”
He smiled, Harriet smiled back, and her heart broke. She hadn’t seen the duke for nearly a year, and yet, this was how it was with them. Always easy, always as if they’d parted the day before with a smile and a wave.
Philippe slipped an arm across her shoulders. “I will keep your secrets, Harriet, because you have so graciously kept mine over the years. You won’t tell anybody I’m hiding in here, for example. If that strutting excuse for bad tailoring Lord Dimwit should see me, I’ll be required to invite him over to the Hall for a meal, and then he’ll make a guest of himself—guest rhymes with pest—and my reunion with Ada will be ruined.”
“His lordship and Papa are secreted in the study bargaining over a mare. You’re safe with me.”
Philippe had always been safe with her, and she’d always been safe with him—damn and drat the luck. He folded himself onto the worn sofa Harriet had donated last year from her mother’s parlor. When occupied by a duke, the sofa looked comfortable rather than at its last prayers.
When embraced by a duke—by this duke—Harriet felt special rather than eccentric.
He did that, made everyone and everything around him somehow more. Philippe was tall, dark, and athletic. In riding attire, he’d set hearts fluttering, though alas for Harriet, His Grace of Lavelle had no use for horses or anything approaching an equestrian pursuit.
For Harriet, by contrast, the horse was a passion and a livelihood—her only passion, besides a doomed attachment to a man to whom she’d never be more than an old, mostly overlooked friend.
On some stone tablet Moses had probably left up on Mount Sinai—stone tablets were deuced heavy—the hand of God had written, “Thou shalt not hug a duke, nor shall dukes indulge in any spontaneous hugging either.”
The consequence for this trespass was so well understood that nobody—not Ada, not Ramsdale in his cups, not Philippe’s mistresses, back when he’d bothered to keep mistresses—dared transgress on Philippe’s person after the title had befallen him.
Harriet Talbot dared. She alone had failed to heed that stone tablet, ever, and thus with her, Philippe was free to pretend the rules didn’t apply.
She was a fierce hugger, wrapping him in a long, tight embrace that embodied welcome, reproach for his absence, protectiveness, and—as a postscript noted by Philippe’s unruly male nature—a disconcerting abundance of curves.
Harriet was unselfconscious about those curves, which was to be expected when she and Philippe had known each other for more than twenty years.
“You do not approve of Lord Dudley,” Philippe said. “Did he insult one of your horses?”
“He’ll ruin one of my horses,” Harriet replied, coming down beside him on the sofa. “One of Papa’s horses, rather.”
Philippe didn’t have to ask permission to sit in her company, she didn’t ring for tea in a frantic rush to offer hospitality—there being no bell-pulls in horse barns, thank the heavenly intercessors—nor tug her décolletage down with all the discretion of a fishmonger hawking a load of haddock.
“Then why sell Dudley the beast in the first place?” Philippe did not particularly care about the horse, but Harriet did.
“Because his lordship has coin and needs a mount for a lady, and Papa has horses to sell and needs that coin. Papa has explained this to me at regular intervals in recent months.”
Never had the Creator fashioned a more average female than Harriet Talbot. She was medium height, brown-haired, blue-eyed, a touch on the sturdy side, and without significant airs or graces. She did not, to Philippe’s knowledge, sing beautifully, excel at the pianoforte, paint lovely watercolors, or embroider wonderfully.
She smelled of horses, told the truth, and hugged him on sight, and to perdition with beautiful, excellent, lovely, and wonderful.
“Do you have reason to believe the lady who will ride the horse is incompetent in the saddle?” Philippe asked.
“I have no idea, but his lordship is a terrible rider. All force and power, no thought for the horse, no sense of how to manage his own weight. He rides by shouting orders at the horse and demanding blind obedience.”
Women criticized faithless lovers with less bitterness than Harriet expressed toward Dudley’s riding.
“He might return the mare,” Philippe said. “He might also pass her on to a lady after all.”
“I live in hope,” Harriet said, sounding anything but hopeful. “How are you?”
To anybody else, Philippe could have offered platitudes about the joys of the Berkshire countryside at harvest, the pleasure of rural quiet after London’s madness.
This was Harriet. “Coming home at this time of year is both sad and difficult, but here is where I must be. At least I get to see you.”
She fiddled with a loose thread along a seam of her habit. “Papa will invite you to dinner.”
This was a warning of some sort. “And I will accept.”
“You need not. Papa will understand.”
Philippe hated that Harriet would understand. “I’ll even bring along Lord Ramsdale, because you are one of few people who can coax him to smile.”
“The earl is a very agreeable gentleman.” Harriet affected a pious tone at odds with the laughter in her gaze.
“The earl is a trial to anybody of refined sensibilities. What is the news from the village?”
They chatted comfortably, until the wheels of Dudley’s phaeton crunched on the gravel drive beyond the saddle room’s windows and the snap of his whip punctuated the early afternoon quiet.
The sound caused Harriet to close her eyes and bunch her habit in her fists. “If his lordship isn’t careful, some obliging horse will send him into a ditch headfirst.”
“He’s also prone to dueling and drinking,” Philippe said. “Put him from your thoughts for the nonce and take me to see your papa.”
“Of course,” Harriet replied, popping to her feet. She never minced, swanned, or sashayed. She marched about, intent on goals and tasks, and had no time for a man’s assistance.
And yet, somebody’s assistance was apparently needed. The roses growing next to the porch were long overdue for pruning, the mirror above the sideboard in the manor’s foyer was dusty, the carpets showed wear. Harriet’s habit was at least four years out of fashion, but then, Harriet had never paid fashion any heed.
Philippe was shocked to see how much Jackson Talbot had aged in little over a year. Talbot still had the lean height of a steeplechase jockey. His grip was strong, and his voice boomed. Not until Harriet had withdrawn to see about the evening meal did Philippe notice the cane Talbot had hooked over the arm of his chair.
“You’re good to look in on us,” Talbot said. “Good to look in on me.”
“I’m paying a call on a pair of people whose company I honestly enjoy,” Philippe said. “Harriet looks to be thriving.”
She looked… she looked like Harriet. Busy, healthy, indifferent to fashion, pretty if a man took the time to notice, and dear. That dearness was more precious than Philippe wanted to admit. He’d come home because duty required it, but seeing Harriet made the trial endurable.
“Harriet,” Talbot sniffed. “She thinks just because my eyesight is going that I don’t notice what’s going on in my own stable. I notice, damn the girl, but she doesn’t listen any better than her mother did.”
That was another difference. Talbot’s eyes, always startlingly blue against his weathered features, had faded, the left more than the right. He held his head at a slight angle, and his desk had been moved closer to the window.
And never before had Philippe heard Talbot disparage his daughter. Criticize her form over fences, of course, but cast aspersion on her character.
“How much vision have you lost?”
Talbot shifted in his chair. “I can’t read the racing forms. Harriet reads them to me. I still get around well enough.”
With a cane, and instead of inviting Philippe to stroll the barn aisle and admire all the pretty horses, Talbot had barely stood to shake hands.
“Women are prone to worrying,” Philippe said.
“Now that is the damned truth, sir. Harriet will fret over that mare, for example, though Lord Dudley’s no more heavy-handed than many of his ilk. Will you have time to join us for dinner before you must away back to London?”
“Of course. I’ve brought Ramsdale along, lest he fall foul of the matchmakers while my back is turned.”
“Man knows how to sit a horse, meaning no disrespect.”
This birching to Philippe’s conscience was as predictable as Harriet’s outdated fashions, though far less endearing. “Talbot, don’t start.”
“Hah. You may play the duke on any other stage, but I know what it costs you to eschew the saddle. You are a natural, just like your brother. You’d pick it back up in no time.”
“All my brother’s natural talent didn’t keep him from breaking his neck, did it?” The silence became awkward, then bitter, then guilty. “I’m sorry, Talbot. I know you mean well. I’ll be going, and if you send an invitation over to the Hall, expect me to be on better behavior when I accept it. I can’t vouch for Ramsdale’s deportment, but Harriet seems to enjoy twitting him.”
Perhaps Harriet was sweet on Ramsdale. She liked big, dumb beasts. Ramsdale might have agreed to this frolic in the countryside because he was interested in Talbot’s daughter.
The earl was devious like that, very good at keeping his own counsel—and he rode like a demon.
“No need to get all in a lather,” Talbot said. “Young people are idiots. My Dora always said so. Let’s plan on having you and his lordship to dine on Tuesday.”
Talbot braced his hands on the blotter as if to push to his feet, and that too was a change.
Not for the better. “Please don’t get up,” Philippe said. “Bargaining with Dudley was doubtless tiring. I’ll see myself out.”
“Until Tuesday.” Talbot settled back into his chair. “Do bring along the earl. He’s the only man I know who can make Harriet blush.”
Talbot shuffled a stack of papers as if putting them in date order, while Philippe took himself back to the front door. A sense of betrayal followed him, of having found a childhood haven collapsing in on itself. He’d always been happy in the Talbot household, had always felt like himself, not like the spare and then—heaven help him—the heir.
Harriet emerged from the corridor that led to the kitchen, a riding crop in her hand. “You’re leaving already?”
Was she relieved, disappointed, or neither? “I have orders to return on Tuesday evening with Ramsdale in tow. Where are you off to?”
“I have another pair of two-year-olds to work in hand. I’ll walk you out.”
Philippe retrieved his hat from the sideboard and held the door for her. “You train them yourself?” When had this started?
“The lads have enough to do, and Lord Dudley’s visit put us behind schedule. The horses like routine, and I like the horses.”
She loved the horses. “So you’re routinely doing the work of three men.” The afternoon sunshine was lovely, and over in the stable yard, a leggy bay youngster stood in bridle and surcingle. Still, Philippe did not like the idea that Harriet had taken on so much of the actual training.
Perhaps all of the training?
“The work of three men is a light load for a woman,” Harriet said. “I’ll look forward to seeing you and his lordship on Tuesday.”
She pulled gloves out of her pocket and eyed the horse as she and Philippe walked down the drive. Already, she was assessing the beast’s mood, taking in details of his grooming.
She paused with him by the gate to the arena. “You walked over?”
“Of course. Most of the distance is along the duke’s bridle path, and Berkshire has no prettier walk.”
“Well, then, have a pleasant ramble home. I’ll look forward to seeing you on Tuesday.”
She was eager to get back to work, clearly. Eager to spend the next hour marching around in the sand, her side pressed to the sweaty flank of a pea-brained, flatulent horse.
Of whom Philippe was unreasonably jealous.
The least Philippe could do was give Harriet something to think about between now and Tuesday besides horses. He leaned close, pressed a kiss to her cheek, and lingered long enough to whisper.
“Until next we meet, don’t work too hard.” Up close, she smelled not of horse, but of roses and surprise.
Her gloved hand went to her cheek. “Until Tuesday, Your Grace.”
Now here was a cheering bit of news: Ramsdale was not the only fellow who could make Harriet Talbot blush. Philippe offered her a bow and a tip of his hat and went jaunting on his way.
Dinner with the duke was a special kind of purgatory for Harriet.
Cook had outdone herself—two peers at the table, and one of them their own Lord Philippe!—and Papa had tried to recapture the jovial spirit he’d exuded before Mama’s death. Harriet had attempted to play hostess, which was harder than it looked for a woman who got out the good china only at Christmas and on the king’s birthday.
Philippe had regaled them with tales of polite society’s follies, while Ramsdale had been mostly quiet. His lordship’s dark eyes had held a lurking pity that made Harriet want to upend the wine carafe into his lordship’s lap.
Sorely missing a friend was not the same as being infatuated with a man far above her touch. “If Ramsdale is insistent on being trounced at the chessboard,” His Grace said when the clock struck ten, “then I’ll see myself home. There’s a lovely moon tonight, and I certainly know the way.”
Thank heavens, or thank Philippe’s faultless manners. He was a considerate man, and Harriet would ever regard it as a pity that he eschewed equestrian activities. A little consideration went a long way toward success with most horses.
“Be off with you,” Ramsdale said, waving a hand. “Lord knows, you need your beauty sleep, Lavelle, while I relish a challenge.”
“And you shall have it,” Papa rejoined, rising more energetically than he had in weeks. “It’s your turn to be white, my lord, and if memory serves, you are down five games and very much in need of the opening advantage.”
As Ramsdale politely bickered about the tally of victories, and Papa hobbled off with him to the study, Harriet’s difficult night took a turn for the worse.
“He’s lonely,” she said.
Philippe paused by her chair. “Ramsdale? You are doubtless correct.”
“Papa. He misses this. Misses the company of men, the jokes over the port, the slightly ungentlemanly talk that doubtless flows when he’s at chess with Ramsdale. With the lads and grooms, Papa has to be the employer. With the buyers, he’s the deferential horse master. With you and Ramsdale… he’s happy.”
Philippe bent closer, as he had when last they’d parted. “What of you, my dear? If your papa is lonesome for the company of men, whose company are you missing?”
Yours. “My mother, I suppose.” And the father she’d once known, who’d been gruff but kindly, a hard worker, and a tireless advocate for the equine.
Philippe sighed, his breath fanning across Harriet’s neck before he straightened to hold her chair. “Ada says you hardly ever call at the Hall.”
Harriet never called at the Hall unless Papa insisted. “I am the daughter of a retired horse master, while Lady Ada is a lady and always will be. I’ll see you out.”
“A horse master is a gentleman,” Philippe said, “every bit as much of a gentleman as a steward or a vicar, and this might come as a revelation, but Ada is, like you, a lady living without benefit of female relations and in need of company.”
Lady Ada was also a lovely woman who adored her brother and took management of the ducal estate very much to heart. Ramsdale’s silent pity Harriet would endure because she must. Pity from the duke’s sister was unthinkable.
“If her ladyship needs company,” Harriet said, “perhaps her brother should spend less time larking about London and more time where he belongs. It’s a wonder women don’t end every meal cursing,” she muttered, disentangling the hem from beneath a chair leg. “These infernal skirts—”
“Are very becoming,” Philippe said, offering his arm.
“I don’t need an escort to my own front door, and I’ll see you out on my way to the mares’ barn.”
Harriet wanted to elbow His Grace in the ribs, but he and she were no longer children; moreover, her elbow would get the worst of the encounter. Philippe was the duke. Over the past ten years, he’d transitioned from spare, to heir, to title holder. Generations of wealth, consequence, and yes—arrogance—regarded her patiently, until she took his arm simply to move the evening toward its conclusion.
I hate you. That pathetic taunt might have salvaged her pride in childhood, but now it was a sad echo of truer sentiments: I miss you when you’re gone for months. I worry about you. More often than you know, I wish I could talk to you or even write to you.
I read the London papers for news of you. I dread the day I hear of your nuptials.
For dukes married as surely as horses collected burrs in their tails.
“You’re worried,” Philippe said when they reached the foyer.
A single candle burned in a sconce on the wall, and when Harriet retired, she’d blow that one out.
“Papa will pay for this night’s pleasures,” Harriet said. “He forgets sore hips when he’s in company or showing a horse to a prospective buyer, and I can’t get him to touch the poppy or even white willow bark tea. I mentioned keeping a Bath chair on hand for the days when he’s too stiff to walk out to the training paddock, and he nearly disowned me.”
“I’m sorry. He’s proud, and that makes it difficult to look after him.” Philippe took Harriet’s cloak from a hook near the sideboard, settled the garment around her shoulders, and fastened the frogs.
He knew exactly what he was doing, and not because he had a sister. Countless nights escorting ladies—titled ladies—to the opera, the theater, or this or that London entertainment had doubtless given him competence to go with his consideration.
Harriet treasured the consideration and resented the competence.
“I can do up my own cloak, Your Grace.”
Philippe shrugged into a shooting jacket and donned his top hat. “She’s Your-Gracing me,” he informed the night shadows. “I have transgressed. Perhaps my sin was complimenting my hostess’s lovely attire. Maybe I misstepped when I commiserated about her father’s waning health. Perhaps I’ve presumed unforgivably by performing small courtesies.”
“You are being ridiculous.” Harriet said. “So am I. I’m sorry.” For so much, she was sorry.
“You are tired,” Philippe replied, holding the door for her. “You work, you don’t sit about stitching pious samplers while plotting adultery. You supervise men, instead of scheming how to get your hands on their coin or their titles. You want for respite, not a new diversion to go with the endless list you’ve already become bored with.”
The moon was full, which meant Harriet had enough light to see Philippe’s features.
The evening had apparently been trying for him too. All those stories about lordlings swimming in fountains, or young ladies whose arrows went astray, that was so much stable-yard talk. The reality was cold mornings and hard falls. Aching limbs and colic vigils. London had left Philippe tired and dispirited. He was bearing up and hiding it well.
“I’m glad you’ve come home,” Harriet said, twining her arm through his. “I’ll walk you to the bridle path.”
“Unlike some people, I won’t grouse at an offer of good company. As a youth, I spent many a moonlit night wishing my true love would accost me under the oaks.”
He referred to a ridiculous local legend: The first person to kiss you under a full moon on the duke’s bridle path is your true love.
“The legend is very forgiving,” Harriet said as they made their way between paddocks. “It doesn’t specify that we’re to have only one true love. I suspect many a stable lad has been relieved that subsequent interests aren’t precluded by that first kiss.”
And maybe many a duke? Tears threatened, and for no reason. What did it matter which squire’s daughter, daring tavern maid, or merry widow had first kissed a young Lord Philippe on the bridle path?
“So who was your first true love?” Philippe asked.
Not a hint of jealousy colored his question. He was merely passing the time while tramping on Harriet’s heart.
“He was tall,” she said. “Quite muscular, a fellow in his prime. Splendid nose, moved like a dream, all grace and power.”
“You noticed his nose?”
Was that disgruntlement in the duke’s voice? “One does, when kissing.”
“Not if one goes about it properly.”
He spoke from blasted experience, while Harriet was spinning fancies. “I noticed his dark, dark hair, his beautiful eyes, his scent.”
“You found a lad here in Berkshire who could afford French shaving soap?”
“He wasn’t a lad, Your Grace. He was quite the young man, and all the ladies adored him.” Which was why he’d been sold as a stud colt and was still standing at a farm in Surrey. “I kissed him good-bye under a full moon on the bridle path, and I will never, ever forget him.”
Philippe slowed as they neared the trees. “You kissed him good-bye?”
This part of the bridle path ran between two rows of stately oaks. Nobody knew when the path had come into use, but the oaks were ancient. In places, the path wound beside a stream. At other points, it left the trees to cut along the edge of a pasture. Every square yard of the footing was safe. Every inch of the way was beautiful.
Especially by moonlight.
Philippe stopped at the gap in the oaks. The night was peaceful enough to carry the sound of horses munching grass in their paddocks. Harriet’s slippers were damp—her only good pair, and she’d neglected to change into boots, because shooing away His Grace had been the more pressing priority.
Shooing away His Grace, whom she missed desperately even when she was standing beside him.
“May I trust you with one more secret, Harriet?”
In the shadows of the trees, she couldn’t make out his expression. “Of course. We are friends, and friends…”
He took off his hat and set it on a thick tree limb. “I waited in vain on this path. Nobody fell prey to my youthful charms, not on Beltane, not at harvest. Nobody would kiss the duke’s younger son, though I witnessed several young ladies bestowing favors on Jonas.”
That must have hurt. “Lord Chaddleworth was a rascal.” A lovable rascal.
A foal whinnied, and the mama answered. A sense of expectation sprang up from nowhere, and two instants later, Harriet realized His Grace was through waiting for somebody to kiss him.
He touched his mouth to hers. Harriet stepped closer, and then his arms came around her.
The kiss resumed, and while Harriet noticed many things—how her body matched the duke’s differently in the darkness, how the breeze blew her hair against her neck, how warm he was, and how his shaving soap smelled of sweet lavender—she did not notice his nose at all.
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End of Excerpt
The Duke’s Bridle Path is available in the following formats:
Grace Burrowes Publishing
September 12, 2017
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