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Forbidden to Love the Duke(4)

By:Jillian Hunter

Ladies usually chased after James, especially when they discovered he was an eligible duke with nothing better to do than indulge their whims.

“Please,” he said, quickening his step. “All I wish is a few words with you.” Which might not be entirely true, but he couldn’t be certain of his own motives until he convinced the woman to give him a chance to introduce himself.

There was something about her that reminded him of the past, of sweet days lost and unappreciated. But that was fancy, the influence of the manor’s charm. She didn’t appear to feel this absurd connection.

She muttered something under her breath and gripped her skirt with her free hand. He decided she was desperate, indeed, if she’d display her stockinged ankles to make an escape. He noticed that she had nicely shaped calves. Perhaps she ran away from men all the time. He could have pounced on her in two masterful strides. Or so he was convinced until he walked into an obelisk concealed behind a wall of hollyhocks.

The impact should have knocked him to his senses. The woman clearly knew the garden’s snares as well as how to elude persistent gentlemen.

Her white sleeves and skirt fluttered out, a taunt and a symbol of innocence at the same time. He felt like Hades pursuing Persephone.

He wouldn’t be surprised if everything in the garden began to wither, and he found himself sitting with her in the underworld, trying to justify his position.

“Miss! I’d like to speak to you about the manor house.”

He reached out for her, not certain which part of her person he would grasp. She looked fetching from behind. But then she dodged another obstacle that he hadn’t anticipated. She seemed to fly through the heavily overgrown garden.

He stumbled over a sack of weeds and stones. Perhaps it was the dead body of the last visitor. He regained his balance but lost the advantage.

“Stop!” he said in his ducal voice, to no effect. Either she disrespected the peerage or she was too upset to acknowledge his rank.

Dangerous women abide within.

Women who bend men to their will.

“Wishful thinking,” James muttered.

A heavy beat of wings in the air drew his gaze to the sky. The hawk flew over the house. Its sudden ascent disturbed a family of jackdaws that appeared to reside in one of the manor’s numerous chimneys.

The woman jumped a small urn filled with geraniums and disappeared into the house. A bramble bush snagged his trousers and slowed his pace.

“I have a sword, you half-wit!” a female voice from inside the manor shouted.

Then the door slammed, the sound reverberating in the garden. A swarm of angry bees circled his head.

He stood, breathing hard. He half expected the rosebushes to grow claws and hold him captive. “Another time, then,” he said; he was no longer merely interested but enthralled. “I’ll send a message ahead. Make proper arrangements.”

He heard the crunch of boots from behind the overgrowth. He followed a weed-choked footpath to the side of the house.

“Pardon me,” he said to a tall gate smothered in strands of verdant ivy. “Is anybody home?”

He tunneled his hand through the vines and made a peephole. The ivy concealed a back garden of such well-maintained Tudor symmetry he believed he’d discovered a secret paradise.

The illusion soon perished. A rheumy eye met his. A voice that could belong to either a beast or human being snarled, “Begone! All and sundry creditors and other trespassers will be roasted on a spit!”

He drew himself upright. It took more than a reclusive lady and an ill-tempered gardener to force a duke to retreat. “I wish to speak to your master or mistress about ownership of this property. And I shall have none of your surly impertinence.”

The gnome hurled a handful of dirt over the gate in answer to his demand. James glanced up, realizing he had an audience. The lady in white stared down at him from a lozenge-shaped oriel window of what he guessed to be a hall in the upper story. Her face blurred behind the leaded glass. He noticed other indistinct figures standing around her like guardian angels.

“Your Grace?” his coachman called from the gatehouse, a footman at his side. “Have you been assaulted?”

James gave a laugh and brushed the dirt from the shoulders of his greatcoat. “Hardly. Let’s return to the carriage. And be careful where you step.”

“I did try to warn Your Grace about those women.”

“Yes, you did. Danger comes in various forms, doesn’t it?”

The coachman looked back in curiosity at the house. “Some of those forms are quite attractive, if you’ll forgive me for saying, Your Grace.”

“How can I not forgive you when we share the same thought?”