At the most crucial moment in a duel, when the antagonists are about to shoot, a woman screams at them to stop and Jocelyn Dudley, Duke of Tresham, is distracted. His opponent takes advantage of his inattention and shoots him in the leg. The first meeting of Tresham and Jane Ingleby follows immediately after.
It had taken iron willpower to remain standing when it felt as if a thousand needles had exploded in his leg. But even though incensed with Lord Oliver for firing his pistol when any true gentleman would have waited for the duel to be reorganized, Jocelyn Dudley, Duke of Tresham, had never had any intention of killing or even wounding him. Only of making him sweat awhile, of giving him time to watch his life flash before his eyes and wonder if this would be the one occasion when the duke, famed as a deadly shot but also known as a man who contemptuously wasted his bullet on the air during duels, would act untrue to form.
The needle points had taken over his whole person by the time he had finished and tossed the pistol into the wet grass. He felt like agony personified and remained upright only because he would be damned before giving Oliver the satisfaction of being able to claim that he had been felled.
He was also still angry. An understatement. He was in a white-hot fury that might have been directed against Oliver had there not been a more obvious target.
He turned his head and looked with narrowed gaze to the spot at the edge of the trees where she had been standing a few moments ago, shrieking like a banshee. A serving girl, running an early-morning errand, no doubt, and forgetting one of the primary rules of service—that one minded one's own business and left one's betters to mind theirs. A girl who needed to be taught a lesson she would never forget.
She was still there, staring as if transfixed, both hands pressed to her mouth, though she had stopped her caterwauling. It was a pity she was a woman. It would have given him infinite satisfaction to set a horsewhip whistling about her hide before being carted away to have his leg attended to. Deuce take it, but he was engulfed in pain.
Only a few moments had passed since he had fired his pistol and tossed it down. Both Brougham and the surgeon were hurrying toward him. The spectators were buzzing with excitement. He heard one voice distinctly.
"Well done, by Jove, Tresh," Viscount Kimble called. "You would have contaminated your bullet by shooting it into the bastard."
Jocelyn held up his left hand again without looking away from the woman by the trees. With his right hand he beckoned imperiously to her.
If she had been wise, she would have turned and run. He was hardly in a position to go chasing after her, and he doubted that anyone else present would be interested in running to earth on his behalf an unappealing, gray-clad slip of a servant girl.
She was not wise. She took a few tentative steps toward him and then hurried the rest of the way until she was standing almost toe to toe with him.
"You fool!" she cried with angry disregard for her place on the social scale and the consequences of talking thus to a peer of the realm. "What an utterly idiotic thing to do. Have you no more respect for your life than to become embroiled in a stupid duel? And now you have been hurt. I would have to say it serves you right."
His eyes narrowed further as he determinedly ignored the pulsing pain in his leg and the near impossibility of standing any longer on it.
"Silence, wench!" he commanded coldly. "If I had died here this morning, you would as like as not have hanged for murder. Have you no more respect for your life than to interfere in what is no concern of yours?"
Her cheeks had been flushed with anger. They paled at this words, and she stared at him wide-eyed, her lips compressed in a hard line.
"Tresham," Sir Conan said from close by, "we had better get that leg attended to, old chap. You are losing blood. Let me carry you with Kimble here over to the blanket the surgeon has spread out."
"Carry?" Jocelyn laughed derisively. He had not taken his eyes off the serving girl. "You, girl. Give me your shoulder."
"Tresham—" Sir Conan sounded exasperated.
"I am on my way to work," the girl said. "I will be late if I do not hurry."
But Jocelyn had already availed himself of her shoulder. He leaned heavily on it, more heavily than he had intended. Moving at last, shifting his weight off his injured leg, he found that the wave of agony made a mockery of the pain hitherto.
"You are the cause of this, my girl," he said grimly, taking one tentative step toward the surgeon, who suddenly seemed an impossible distance away. "You will, by God, lend me your assistance and keep your impertinent tongue safely housed between your teeth."
Lord Oliver was pulling his waistcoat and coat back on while Viscount Russell was packing away his pistol and came striding past Jocelyn to retrieve the other one.
"You would do better," the girl said, "to swallow your pride and allow your friends to carry you."
Her shoulder did not bow beneath his weight. She was rather tall and slender, but she was no weakling. She was doubtless accustomed to hard manual labor. She was probably equally accustomed to cuffings and beatings for impudence. He had never heard the like from a servant girl.
He was well-nigh swooning by the time he reached the blanket the surgeon had spread on the grass beneath an oak tree.
"Lie down, your grace," he instructed, "and I will see what damage has been done. I do not like the look of the positioning of that wound, I must confess. Or all the blood. I daresay the leg will need to come off."
He spoke as if he were a barber who had discovered a tuft of hair that did not blend well with the rest of the head. He was a retired army sawbones, supplied by Lord Oliver. Bloodletting and amputation were probably his answer to every physical ailment.
Jocelyn swore eloquently.
"You cannot possibly know that from a single glance," the serving girl had the temerity to observe, addressing the surgeon, "or make such a dire prediction."
"Conan," Jocelyn said, his teeth clamping tightly in a vain attempt to control the pain, "fetch my horse." It was tethered not far away.
There was a chorus of protests from his friends who had gathered around him.
"Fetch his horse? He is as mad as ever."
"I have my carriage here, Tresham. Ride in that. I'll go and have it brought up."
"Stay where you are, Brougham. He is out of his mind."
"That's the fellow, Tresham. You show them what you are made of, old sport."
"Fetch my damned horse!" Jocelyn spoke from between his teeth. He had a death grip on the girl's shoulder.
"I am going to be very late," she scolded. "I will lose my employment for sure."
"And serve you right too," Jocelyn said, throwing her own words back at her, his voice devoid of all sympathy as his friend strode away to bring his horse and the surgeon launched into a protest.
"Silence, sir!" Jocelyn instructed him. "I will have my own physician summoned to Dudley House. He will have more regard for his future than to suggest sawing off my leg. Help me to my horse, girl."
But Lord Oliver appeared in front of him before he could turn away.
"I am not satisfied, I would have you know, Tresham," he said, his voice breathless and trembling as if he were the one who had suffered injury. "You will doubtless use the distraction with the girl to throw dishonor on my name. And everyone will laugh at me when it is known that you contemptuously shot into the air."
"You would rather be dead, then?" Death was seeming to be a rather desirable state to Jocelyn at that particular moment. He was going to black out if he did not concentrate hard.
"You will stay away from my wife in the future if you know what is good for you," Lord Oliver said. "Next time I may not accord you the dignity of a challenge. I may shoot you down like the dog you are."
He strode away without waiting for an answer, while another chorus of "Shame!" came from the gallery, some of whose members were doubtless disappointed that they were not to witness the sawbones plying his trade on the grass of Hyde Park.
"My horse, girl." Jocelyn tightened his hold on her shoulder again and moved the few steps to Cavalier, whose head Conan was holding.
Mounting was a daunting task and would have been quite impossible if his pride had not been at stake—and if he had not had the assistance of his silent but disapproving friend. It amazed Jocelyn that one small wound could cause such agony. And there was worse to look forward to. The bullet was lodged in his calf. And despite his words to the surgeon, he was not quite confident that the leg could be saved. He gritted his teeth and took the reins from Conan's hands.
"I'll ride with you, Tresham," his friend said curtly. "You bloody idiot!"
"I'll ride on your other side," Viscount Kimble offered cheerfully, "and then you will have someone to catch you whichever side you choose to slide off. Well done. Tresh, old chap. You gave that old sawbones a right setdown."
The serving girl stood looking up at Jocelyn.
"I must be at least half an hour late by now," she said, "all because of you and your foolish quarreling and more than foolish dueling."
Jocelyn reached for one of the pockets of his coat, only to be reminded that he was still wearing just his shirt and breeches and top boots.
"Conan," he said testily, "oblige me by finding a sovereign in my coat pocket and tossing it to this wench, will you? It will more than compensate her for the loss of half an hour's wages."
But she had turned on her heel and was striding away over the grass, her back bristling with indignation.
"It is a good thing," Baron Pottier said, looking after her, his quizzing glass to his eye, "that shop girls do not challenge dukes to duels, Tresham. You would be out here tomorrow morning again for sure." He chuckled. "And I would not wager against her."
When Lord Ferdinand Dudley arrives in the village of Trellick to claim the house and estate he has won at a card game, it is May 1 and there are May Day celebrations in progress about the village green. Ferdinand cannot resist joining in the merriment, especially when he spies a particularly pretty young lady with whom to flirt. And for her part, Viola Thornhill, one of the organizers of the celebrations, is intrigued by the handsome stranger who has ridden into the village, and is not averse to a little mild flirtation. Little do the two of them realize that the following day they will be at daggers drawn when they both lay claim to ownership of the same house.
The fortune teller was already doing a brisk business. What Viola had also noticed was that the stranger had strolled over to the throwing booth, which had been popular with the young men earlier in the afternoon. He was talking with Jake Tulliver, the blacksmith, when Viola and Mr. Claypole drew near.
"I was about to close down the booth, seeing as how we have run out of prizes," Jake said, raising his voice to address her. "But this gentleman wants a try."
"Well, then," she said gaily, "we will have to hope he does not win, will we not?"
The stranger turned his head to look at her. He was indeed tall, almost a full head taller than she. His eyes were almost black. They gave his handsome face a somewhat dangerous look. Viola felt her heartbeat quicken.
"Oh," he said with quiet assurance, "I will win, ma'am."
"Will you?" she asked. "Well, there is nothing so very surprising about that. Everyone else has won too, almost without exception. Hence the embarrassing lack of prizes to give away. I daresay the targets were set too close. We must remember that next year, Mr. Tulliver."
"Set them back twice as far," the stranger said, "and I will still win."
She raised her eyebrows at the boast and looked at the metal candlesticks—the old set from the church vestry—which had been toppling all too readily before the ball the contestants had been hurling at them.
"Are you sure?" she asked. "Very well, then, sir, prove it. If you win—four out of the five must fall with just five throws, you understand—then we will return your money. It is the best we can do. All of today's proceeds go to the vicar's charities, you see, so we cannot afford to offer cash prizes."
"I will pay twice the entry fee," the stranger said with a grin that made him look both reckless and boyish. "And I will knock all five candlesticks down at twice their present distance. But I must insist upon a prize, ma'am."
"I believe we might safely offer the church spire without fear of denuding the church," she said. "It cannot be done."
"Oh, it can and will," he assured her, "if the prize is to be those daisies you wear above your ear."
Viola touched them and laughed. "A valuable prize indeed," she said. "Very well, sir."
Mr. Claypole cleared his throat. "You will permit me to point out that wagers are inappropriate to what is essentially a church fete, sir," he said.
The stranger laughed into Viola's eyes, almost as if he believed it was she who had spoken.
"Let us make sure that the church benefits well from this wager, then," he said. "Twenty pounds for the church whether I win or lose. The lady's daisies for me if I win. Move back the targets," he instructed Jake Tolliver while he set a few banknotes down on the booth counter.
"Miss Thornhill." Mr. Claypole had taken her by the elbow and was speaking earnestly into her ear. "This will not do. You are drawing attention to yourself."
She looked about to see that indeed people who had been awaiting their turn outside the fortune-teller's booth and had overheard the exchange were beginning to gather around. And their interest was attracting more. A number of people were hurrying across the green toward the throwing booth. The gentleman was removing his coat and rolling up his shirtsleeves. Jake was repositioning the candlesticks.
"This gentleman has donated twenty pounds to the vicar's fund," Viola called gaily to the gathering crowd. "If he knocks down all five candlesticks with five throws of the ball, he will winmy daisies."
She gestured toward them and laughed with the crowd. But the stranger, she saw, did not. He was rolling the ball in his hands, concentrating on it, and squinting ahead to the candlesticks, which now looked an impossible distance away. He could not possibly win. She doubted he could knock over even one.
But one toppled over even as she was thinking it and the crowd applauded appreciatively.
Jake handed the stranger the ball again, and he concentrated on it as before. A hush fell on the gathered crowd, which had swelled even more in size.
A second candlestick teetered, looked is if it were about to right itself, and fell with a clatter.
At least, Viola thought, he had not totally humiliated himself. He looked more than handsome in his shirtsleeves. He looked...well, very male. She desperately wanted him to win his bet. But he had set himself a nearly impossible task.
Again he concentrated.
The third candlestick fell.
The fourth did not.
There was a collective moan from the crowd. Viola felt absurdly disappointed.
"It would seem, sir," she said, "that I get to keep my flowers."
"Not so hasty, ma'am." His grin was back and he held out his hand for the ball. "The wager was for five candlesticks down with five throws, was it not? Did it state that one had to go down with each throw?"
"No." She laughed when she understood his meaning. "But you have only one throw left, and two candlesticks are standing."
"Oh ye of little faith," he murmured with a wink, and Viola felt a pleased fluttering of awareness low in her abdomen.
Then he was concentrating again, and the crowd was being shushed by those who realized that he had not yet admitted defeat, and Viola's heart was beating right up into her ears.
Her eyes widened with incredulity and the crowd erupted into a roar of wild cheering as the ball hit one upright candlestick, glanced sideways off it as it fell, and demolished the fifth with a satisfying crack.
The gentleman turned, bowed to his audience, and then grinned at Viola, who was clapping and laughing and realizing that this was by far the most exhilarating moment of the day.
"That bouquet is forfeit, I believe, ma'am," he said, pointing to her daisies. "I will claim them for myself."
She stood still while his fingers detached the small bunch of daisies from her hair. His laughing eyes did not waver from her own—they were very dark brown, she could see now. His skin looked sun-bronzed. His body heat and a musky cologne reached out to envelop her. He carried the daisies to his lips, bowed with careless grace, and pushed the stems into the buttonhole of his shirt.
"A lady's favor at my breast," he murmured. "What more could I ask of the day?"
© Mary Balogh