The Duke of Hardcastle is forced by the elements to share a coach with his nephew Christopher, and Christopher’s governess, Miss MacHugh on the way to a summer house party. His grace, fortunately, excels at making the best of trying situations….
Pride, even ducal pride, could carry a man only so far.
Hardcastle’s pride had carried him three miles beyond the coaching inn, three miles of wet verge, muddy road, and relentless rain. Three miles of cold trickling down the back of his neck no matter the angle of his sodden top hat and no matter how many times he adjusted the collar of his great coat.
Ajax bore it all stoically—he was the personal mount of a duke, after all—but when thunder rumbled to the north, and lightning joined the affray, Ajax’s equine dignity threatened to desert him.
Hardcastle signaled John Coachman to pull up, tied Ajax to the back of the coach, and climbed inside.
“Uncle! We’re playing the color game. You’re very wet!”
“Miss MacHugh, your charge is a prodigy.” Where did one sit, when one was a large, sodden duke who reeked of wet horse, muddy boots, and disgust with this entire outing? The duke shrugged out of his great coat and hung it on a peg on the back of the coach door.
“Christopher is a bright boy, your grace,” her governess-ship replied. “I tell him that frequently.”
Miss MacHugh sat on the forward facing seat beside Christopher, both of them dry and cozy, the boy having the audacity to smile.
Nothing for it then. A gentleman did not drip indiscriminately on a lady, or on a child. Hardcastle took the backward facing seat and silently cursed all house parties.
“My mother will answer for this,” he muttered, taking off his top hat and getting a brimful of frigid rain water across his lap for his efforts. “If it’s not the blazing heat, the flies and the dust, it’s the mud, the rain and the cold.”
“I’m not cold,” Christopher said. “Would you like to play our game with us, sir?”
Hardcastle would rather have throttled his dear mama. “A duke, as a rule, hasn’t time for games.”
The child’s face fell, which was durance vile for the uncle sitting across from him. Christopher wasn’t to blame for the weather, nor for the queasiness that had already begun to plague the ducal belly. Worse, Miss MacHugh’s expression had gone carefully blank, as if once again, Mr. Higginbotham had arrived at Sunday services tipsy.
Farmer Higginbotham was probably still tipsy on a Tuesday afternoon, also warm and dry by his own hearth.
“I find,” Hardcastle said, “that the luxury of time has been afforded me by the foul weather, the execrable roads, and the boon of present company. What is this color game?’
“Does that mean he’ll play?” the boy asked his governess.
“Not everybody has the skill to play the color game, Christopher,” Miss MacHugh said, brushing her hand over the child’s golden curls. “We’ve had plenty of practice, while his grace is will be a complete beginner.”
“You are no great respecter of dukes, are you, Miss MacHugh?” Hardcastle asked.
“I respect you greatly, sir, but the color game requires imagination and quickness, and Christopher is very good at it.”
“Alas, then I am doomed to defeat, being a slow, dull fellow. How does one play this game?”
The coach swayed and jostled along, Hardcastle’s belly rebelled strenuously against traveling on a backward facing bench, and across from him, governess and prodigy exchanged a smile that was diabolically sweet. For a moment, they were a single entity of impish glee, delighted with each other, and their circumstances.
For that same moment, Hardcastle forgot he was cold, wet, and queasy, and nearly forgot he was a duke.
“It’s simple, sir,” Christopher said. “One person picks out an object, then we take turns naming as many colors as we can that describe the object. The person with the most colors wins. I’ll give you an example,” the boy went on, his manner as patient and thorough as any duke’s. “Your breeches are brown, gray near your boots, and buckskin. Also… sort of umbrage where the mud has splashed on them.”
“Umber,” Miss MacHugh corrected gently—smirkingly. “Umbrage refers to indignation. Umber is a rusty, sienna, orange-y dark brown.”
“The game seems simple enough,” Hardcastle said. Also tedious and pointless, but not entirely without possibilities. “Let’s describe the colors in Miss MacHugh’s hair.”
“Keen!” Christopher chortled. “Miss MacHugh’s hair is ever so pretty, but she’s wearing her bonnet.”
“She might be willing to part with her bonnet,” the duke replied, stretching out his legs, and taking care not to let his boots come near her pristine hems. “For the sake of my education regarding the pressing topic of colors, of course.”
Sitting backward did not agree with him, being damp and cold did not agree with him. Ruffling Miss MacHugh’s feathers was unworthy of him, but agreed with him rather well.