When writing Regency romances I never really know where the story's going. I start with a basic idea and then allow my imagination, and characters, to take over. Sometimes they take me completely by surprise, doing things I hadn't expected at all.
Take my up-coming release with Carina Press, for example. Of Dukes and Deceptions came about because I decided it would be fun to tinker with the class system. My hero is a duke, an only child brought up in opulence and doing precisely as he pleases, regardless of the consequences. He's handsome, rich and single so it's hardly to be wondered at. But Nick meets his match in Alicia Woodley, a mere poor relation, when visiting her uncle's stud farm he visits. Here's how they first make one another's acquaintance.
Nick left Gibson to keep the horses calm and went in search of the owner of the offending vehicle. He strode across the road, following the sound of voices coming from a nearby thicket, ready to tear the malefactor off a strip. As he paused to listen, he detected the soft tones of a woman’s voice and the deeper rumble of an adolescent male.
“Hold her steady if you can, Will. I almost have it.”
“Will she be all right, miss?”
“She will if I have any say in the matter.”
The woman sounded both angry and full of determination. Nick’s own anger at the manner in which she’d so carelessly abandoned her transportation was still clouding his mind as he descended the steep riverbank and moved closer to her position. He was keen to see what so occupied her attention that she’d blocked the road in her anxiety to attend to it. He made no effort to move quietly, but she was so taken up with her task that she didn’t appear to realise he was there.
Nick swore volubly when he discerned the cause of her anxiety. It was nothing more than a scrawny rabbit caught in a trap. His valuable horses could have been badly injured for the sake of a damned rabbit! It defied belief.
He looked again to make sure he wasn’t seeing things. No, it was definitely a rabbit, and it had its leg caught in a snare. It was clearly in acute pain and half scared out of its wits. The woman was trying to twist the vicious-looking trap clear of its leg. She was taking infinite care, speaking reassuringly to the captive, but the snare was too strong for her to break its hold.
“It’s no good, Will,” she said with a frustrated sigh. “It appears to be stuck fast and I don’t have the strength to—”
“It would be a greater kindness to put it out of its misery by wringing its neck.”
The woman started violently and her companion, equally discomposed, almost dropped the rabbit.
Investing his tone with a wealth of sarcasm, he stepped up to her. “And if it means you’ll move that nag of yours out of my path, I’ll be glad to provide you with that small service. Presumably you’re too squeamish to attend to the matter yourself?”
“I’m not trying to kill it, you idiot! I wish to save the poor animal, and your creeping up on us like a thief in the night almost made us do it further harm.” She glared at him, her expression hostile. “Whatever did you suppose you were about?”
Nick was so taken aback that it took a moment for him to realise her remark had actually been intended for him. His Grace the Duke of Dorchester was accustomed to being pandered to. Obsequiousness came high on the list of attitudes he was compelled to endure. Deferential, sycophantic and unctuous behaviour was also much in evidence in his dealings with the lower classes. He must have become immune to it all over the years because he couldn’t remember the last time anyone had dared to refer to him as an idiot. At least, not to his face. Even Gibson, who felt he’d earned the right to speak his mind, wouldn’t go so far. His anger drained away in the face of the woman’s refreshing attitude and he decided to help her anyway.
“Here, allow me.”
He took the strong wire from her fingers and twisted. It barely moved. He glanced at her in surprise.
“Yes, indeed.” She nodded vigorously, her eyes alight with fiery anger. “The poachers around these parts are as desperate as they are devious. They don’t give the poor animals a chance.”
“And you thought you’d be able to free the creature unaided?”
“There’s no call for such scepticism.” She tossed her head, eyes now flashing with indignation. Her attitude left Nick with the distinct impression that she had little time for members of the opposite gender who thought themselves superior in the ways of the countryside. “I’ve done it successfully several times before. There’s a technique to it. It requires more than mere brute force. Even a female can manage it, with patience and an obliging captive, which this poor rabbit appears to be.”
Nick raised a brow, starkly cynical. “I admire your optimism but fear you’re chasing a lost cause.”
“Nonsense! The rabbit suffers more with every second we delay but I shall free her. This is how it’s done. Look.” She moved closer to him. “You must unthread the wire, through that gap there. That’s the difficult part. No, not like that! It will tighten if you turn it in that direction.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“Because the animal would naturally move that way to escape. The poachers understand that and know it will doom itself. Yes, now you have it.” She nodded, apparently satisfied with his clumsy fumbling. The abrupt movement of her head dislodged a few loose curls from the ribbon which was supposed to be holding them back. They fell across her face and she pushed them impatiently aside. “Now, simply pull the wire away. Gently now, don’t distress the poor thing unnecessarily.”
The wire snapped away from the rabbit’s leg. It was badly injured but not, according to his as-yet-unnamed companion, broken.
“It is as I’d hoped.” The woman bestowed a reassuring smile upon the animal. “We’ll be able to make her well again soon enough, Will.”
She pulled the shawl from around her shoulders and wrapped the rabbit in it, cradling it against her chest. Amazingly, it seemed happy enough with that situation and made no effort to escape. She stroked its ears and cooed at it. Not once had she so much as looked in Nick’s direction and had yet to thank him for his assistance.
Amused rather than offended, he took a moment to assess the rabbit’s benefactress. Early twenties was his estimate of her age. She was of above average height, dressed in a serviceable gown of scarlet wool that had seen better days. There was no corset beneath it—he’d bet the duchy on that fact—but she filled the bodice very adequately without any artificial assistance. Her white petticoat showed beneath the hem of her gown, dripping with mud, presumably as a result of her foray onto the riverbank they were standing upon. Nick’s boots were similarly afflicted. In spite of the coolness of the day, she wore no pelisse and had sacrificed her shawl for the greater good of the rabbit without a thought for her own comfort.
Her hair was dark but not quite black. He’d already ascertained that the scarlet ribbon holding it back was woefully inadequate, and her tresses cascaded across her shoulders in a riot of insubordinate curls. There was no evidence of a bonnet or gloves. She looked dishevelled, as though she had more important things to do than concern herself with her appearance, a factor greatly in her favour from Nick’s perspective. He was rather enjoying her irreverent company and decided to delay the moment when he must reveal his identity, which would inevitably change everything.
He took advantage of her preoccupation with her patient to examine her face. She wasn’t handsome in the accepted sense. However, a serene quality of self-containment about her held his attention, and an intelligent light in her eyes suggested quiet strength of character. Her features could best be described as arresting. Her face was slightly tanned, lending proof to a preference for the outdoors. Freckles dusted her pert nose, presumably the price paid for cavorting about the countryside on a one-woman crusade to deprive local poachers of a dishonest living. Her chin was a little too long to lend her true beauty, and the ear peeping through that riot of curls was decidedly too large.
But Nick wasn’t about to hold such misfortunes of nature against the chit. He was swamped by beautiful wherever he went. It was a refreshing change to encounter one who didn’t conform to that pattern, both in appearance and in manner. Besides, this creature owned such compelling green eyes, currently full of compassion as she gazed upon the injured animal in her arms, that he’d have forgiven her just about anything. He’d already absolved her from blame for the accident she’d almost caused.
She must be the daughter of some local worthy. But whoever she was, she ought to remember her manners and display some gratitude toward him for assisting her. A method in which such a spirited chit might discharge that debt sprang spontaneously to mind. Nick felt himself hardening at the prospect and almost smiled in anticipation of the challenge he’d just set for himself.
Perhaps his sojourn here wouldn’t be such a massive waste of time after all. Being of relatively lowly birth, the girl was probably unaware of the obligation she’d placed herself under when accepting his help. He’d enjoy educating her in that respect. And in other ways too. Afterward he’d reward her with a few trinkets, the like of which she’d never have anticipated owning in the normal scheme of things, and be on his way.
When she opened her mouth again, doubts filtered into his brain. She spoke in a refined manner and the lad deferred to her authority as a matter of course. His enigmatic companion was obviously well connected. Obliging females littered Nick’s path at every turn. The disappointment he experienced when he realised this one was very likely forbidden fruit was surprisingly profound.
“Do I have the honour of addressing Miss Woodley?”
She must have forgotten all about him in her anxiety for the rabbit because her eyes widened at the sound of his voice. She turned in his direction, openly assessing him. Amusement lit her expression as her eyes roved from his mud-splattered boots, taking in his tight-fitting inexpressibles, caped driving coat and finally coming to rest on his hat. Her smile broadened, indicating that, far from being cowed by unexpectedly conversing with a gentleman of high birth, she found the situation diverting.
“And you’re the Duke of Dorchester, I collect.”
Without waiting for a response she executed a surprisingly graceful curtsey, given that she was still clutching the rabbit. It ought to have looked ridiculous but somehow conveyed the impression of being just the opposite. She chuckled, presumably in response to his quizzical expression.
“Don’t look so crestfallen, Your Grace. I’m Alicia Woodley, the poor relation. It’s my cousin Maria you’ve come to look over, and I can assure you she’s every bit as beautiful as the reputation which precedes her.”
“Really!” Nick quirked a brow imperiously. “You have the advantage of me, Miss Woodley. I was under the impression I’d come to the district to observe the workings of your uncle’s stud farm.”
She chuckled again, apparently unaffected by his display of aristocratic superiority. As she did so, Nick noticed that her lips were a perfect cupid’s bow. The tip of her tongue protruded and she moistened them unselfconsciously. He didn’t think the gesture was contrived—this girl was no flirt—and couldn’t recall the last time any female had behaved so artlessly in his presence. He regarded her with a modicum of interest.
“Did you indeed.” Her smile was invested with a wealth of amusement. “Still, it doesn’t signify, about Maria, I mean. Unless I mistake the matter, you’re no stranger to ambitiously determined females anxious to make a favourable impression.”
“You might well be right, but at present my path is being hindered by a different sort of female altogether. To wit, one cob intent upon the choicest pasture, mindless of the danger she causes to legitimate road-users in her determination to reach it.”
“Oh, gracious!” Miss Woodley’s hand flew to her mouth. “Matilda must be up to her old tricks again. I apologise if she endangered your progress, Your Grace. However well I tether her, she seems to have mastered the knack of freeing herself if she desires something out of her reach. It’s a very trying habit but, you see, she was so badly treated by the farmer who previously owned her that I can’t bring myself to chastise her for her lack of manners.”
“I quite see your difficulty.” Instead of embarking upon the lecture he’d been preparing, Nick found himself smiling. “Under the circumstance, perhaps we should be thankful that Matilda consents to be harnessed to your conveyance at all.”
“Oh, she’s perfectly happy to make herself useful.” A capricious smile illuminated Miss Woodley’s face. “Although she doesn’t care to be hurried and prefers to attend to matters at her own pace.”
“Then given her independent streak, might it not have been wiser to choose a wider stretch of road upon which to abandon her?”
“I don’t see why that should concern you.” She lifted her shoulders, as though bored with the entire conversation.
“It concerns me because it would have greatly reduced the likelihood of causing an accident.”
“Perhaps, but I can’t be held to account for the location where poachers set their traps. Besides, this back road is so seldom used that I didn’t think she’d be in anyone’s way. I’d quite forgotten you were expected today, you see. But even if I’d remembered, I wouldn’t have anticipated your approaching from this direction.” She wrinkled her brow. “Don’t dukes automatically take the front entrance?”
“So you hold me responsible for your own neglect.” Nick, who until that point had been enjoying the exchange, felt his anger returning. “In which case, perhaps I should beg your pardon for interrupting Matilda’s lunch.”
“Oh, don’t concern yourself about that.” Miss Woodley waved his words aside. She didn’t seem in the least put out by his caustic tone. A tone which had been known to reduce grown men to quivering wrecks. “Matilda has a very forgiving nature.”
For once Nick had no answer to make and concentrated instead upon quelling his surprise at her latest revelation. She’d forgotten that he was engaged to call at Ravenswing Manor. His arrival at any location was usually keenly anticipated, and he couldn’t recall when it had last been overlooked by anyone.
“I hope no harm came to your equipage,” Miss Woodley said, almost as an afterthought.
“None, I thank you. And my man and I escaped injury also.”
She looked at him with an impatient expression. “Well, obviously, I can see that.”
Of Dukes and Deceptions - Available from Carina Press March 14. Don't miss it!