“You’ve already met him.” Janet stopped dead in her tracks and bestowed a suspicious scowl upon her. “Why didn’t you say so before?”
Alicia explained. “He wanted to wring the poor rabbit’s neck. Can you imagine such callousness?”
“And I suppose you gave him a piece of your mind.”
Alicia grinned. “Actually, I told him he was an idiot.”
Janet groaned. “Good grief, I wouldn’t be in your shoes if your uncle learns of your discourtesy.”
“How will he find out?”
“Oh, there are ways.”
“Well, I doubt whether His Grace will bother to enlighten him, and I certainly don’t intend to do so.”
“You’re very likely wrong. The aristocracy don’t care to be spoken down to. I expect His Grace will wish to have an example made of you.”
Alicia pulled a face. “He deserved to be put in his place.”
“But he helped you rescue the rabbit for all that. I trust you thanked him.”
“Oh, heavens!” Alicia covered her mouth to prevent herself from laughing outright and having to endure another of Janet’s lectures. “I knew there was something I meant to do.”
“Ye gods!” Janet shook her head but Alicia got the impression she was having difficulty keeping her disapproving expression in place.
They reached Alicia’s chamber and Janet became too preoccupied with her duties to spare further time for scoldings.
“What’s he like?” she asked instead. “Is he high in the instep? Well,” she continued, not pausing long enough for Alicia answer, “I suppose that’s only to be expected.”
“He’s quite the most arrogant individual it’s ever been my misfortune to encounter.”
“Aye, I’ve no doubt he struck you that way if he didn’t share your concern for some scrap of a rabbit. But is he handsome, my love? Your cousin will be devastated if he’s merely mortal.”
Alicia considered her response, even though she didn’t need to. She thought she’d been too angry with him to pay much attention to his person. But it took no time at all to summon up an image of the imposing individual who’d strutted in front of her in a quite insufferable manner, doing his best to bully her into submission.
“Well, he’s taller than average. A full head taller than me, in fact.”
Janet, engaged in pouring hot water into a ewer, chuckled so heartily that she slopped some over the edge of the basin.
“What’s so diverting, Janet?” Alicia stepped out of her soiled gown and draped it across the back of a chair. “Why should His Grace’s height be a cause for such mirth? It’s a pleasant change to be obliged to look up to a gentleman, even one as haughty as the duke.”
“Oh, I dare say it is, and it ain’t that what I find amusing. It’s more the thought of your cousin trying to win him round. She’ll need to stand on a box simply to converse with him. And even if she did manage to engage his attention, how would they…” Janet flushed and returned her attention to her duties. “Well, never mind about that. I dare say they’d manage.”
“Maria is not so very slight.”
“Of course she is, love. She’s barely five foot, even with the advantage of high shoes to aid her cause.” Tears of mirth were pouring down Janet’s lined face. “For all that she’s pretty and delicate, I should imagine a hulking great figure like you describe His Grace as being will scare her half out of her wits. You know what a flibbertigibbet she is.”
Alicia, out of a sense of duty to her cousin, attempted to look severely upon Janet but spoiled the effect by giggling. “Do you want to know more about the duke, or not?” she asked between splutters.
“Bless you, of course I do, lamb.” Janet helped Alicia to wash the grime from her limbs whilst simultaneously brushing her hair vigorously into submission. “Tell me everything about him that you can remember.”
“Well, he has broad shoulders and is very strong. He pulled the trap away from the poor rabbit’s leg as though it was nothing more than a piece of string. It was quite stuck and I wouldn’t have been able to manage it nearly so well without hurting the creature even more.”
“He can’t be all bad then. If he’s as high-handed as you suggest, he would simply have wrung the rabbit’s neck, regardless of your protestations.”
“Humph, I should like to have seen him try!”
“Anyway, never mind that. He helped you, and it was very good of him.” Janet tugged at a particularly stubborn tangle in Alicia’s hair.
“Sorry, pet. Now sit still and tell me some more about him.”
“Well, he has light brown hair, brown eyes and a disgusting sense of self-importance. He was really quite cross with me, you know, just because I didn’t get all flummoxed when he deigned to notice me.”
“Seeing as how that old cob of yours almost caused him to break his neck, I don’t see as how you can hold that against him.”
“Matilda didn’t do it on purpose. Besides, he shouldn’t have been travelling so fast on such a narrow road. He can’t hold me to blame for his own irresponsibility.”
“Well, let’s hope that’s something else your uncle don’t get to hear about.” Alicia pulled a face. “What else did he say to you?”
“Nothing of consequence.” Alicia frowned. “But he did seem to think he was here solely to look at the horses.”
“Word hadn’t reached him of your cousin’s beauty, then?”
Janet chuckled again as she twisted Alicia’s hair into a knot at the back of her head and jabbed at it with pins.
“Keep still, pet, and let me do my work. Tell me more about His Grace. It’ll distract you and, God willing, it might even persuade you to sit still.”
“There isn’t much more to tell. He is good looking, I suppose, if you look beyond all that aristocratic pomposity. No, no, I take that back. I can’t persuade myself that he’s actually pompous. It’s just that he’s used to being deferred to, I suppose, and doesn’t realise he’s being condescending. But he didn’t seem to mind clambering about on the riverbank and wasn’t afraid to get his boots dirty.” She lifted her shoulders, which earned her a sharp reprimand. “Sorry! Still, I suppose it doesn’t matter to him if he dirties his boots. He’s not the one who has to clean them. That task would fall to his man.”
Janet sniffed her disapproval. “Don’t talk to me about that devil. He’s been in the kitchen this last hour, drinking tea, eating scones and being charming to everyone. He was actually flirting with Cook, if you please.”
Alicia laughed. “And why should that overset you, Janet? Would you have him flirt with you instead?”
“Certainly not!” Janet bristled with indignation. “I don’t hold no truck with that sort of behaviour.”
“Then why have you taken him in such dislike?”
“Because of all the impertinent questions he was asking. I found his manner quite objectionable.”
“What sort of questions?” Alicia stood and admired Janet’s handiwork in the pier glass. She’d managed to tame her rebellious locks into a style that was quite flattering.
“Oh, all about the family. Who was who and where everyone fit into the scheme of things.”
“That’s natural enough, surely?” Alicia wondered why she felt the need to defend the odious duke’s man. “I don’t suppose His Grace had ever heard of us before my uncle invited him here. It’s only to be expected that he should want to know whom he’s dealing with, and what better way to find out than by asking the servants.” She grinned. “Servants always know absolutely everything that goes on.”
“I suppose you’re right but even so I—”
“Oh, no! Must I, Janet?”
“Aye, that you must.” Janet forced Alicia to stand still as she laced her into a pretty corset edged with love-knots in emerald silk. “Your uncle won’t let you into the drawing room if you’re not properly dressed. He might overlook your rebellious ways when you don’t have company but he won’t put up with them when he has such an important guest. Besides, you wouldn’t wish to embarrass him and give the duke cause to look down on you more than you think he already does, would you now?”
“I suppose not. But it so vexes me that I must wear the wretched garment when I don’t need it. Besides, you always lace it so tight I can scarce breathe.”
“Don’t exaggerate, lamb.” Janet’s only concession was to loosen the laces a mere fraction before helping Alicia step into her petticoats. “There now, you look a picture.” She tied the last of the ribbons on her mistress’s gown. “Quite the equal to either of your cousins, just as I promised you’d be.”
“Don’t be so silly.” Alicia turned to look at herself in the glass again, startled by the image that stared back. She seldom took this much trouble over her appearance and was surprised at the difference Janet’s ministrations had wrought in so short a time. Surprised, but not especially interested. She left that sort of thing to Maria and Elsbeth. “Still, I dare say that for once my uncle won’t be able to find fault with me. Thank you, Janet.” She kissed her maid’s wrinkled cheek and slipped her feet into her evening slippers. “Right, hand me my fan and I suppose I’d better enter the fray.”
Of Dukes and Deceptions - Available from Carina Press from March 14. Go to my website www.wendysoliman.com, read the first chapter and enter the contest there to win a copy of the book.