“I had not planned on being a damsel in distress today,” Olivia remarked to her friend Mary Alice from the doorway of their overturned coach. “And I’m sure you did not either. Though Francesca, as usual, is making the whole business look stylish, even in this weather.” She swiped at a trickle of melting sleet making its way down her cheek.
The cold, early spring rain and sleet that had been falling all day had made the roads muddy, and their coach had taken a curve a little too hastily, with the result that it was now lying on its side on a road at some miles from the spa town that was their destination. Poor Mary Alice had bumped her head when the coach overturned, though she’d assured her friends it was nothing. Their coachman had left a groom to see to the horses and gone in search of assistance, but fortuitously, three gentlemen had just happened upon the scene and offered the ladies shelter at a nearby estate called Rose Heath.
The third member of their party, their friend Francesca, had already been helped onto the mount of Sir Greyville Trenton, one of their rescuers, and the pair was now riding away. Olivia and Mary Alice had not yet met the other gentlemen.
Olivia began to get down from the coach.
“And look, here’s your very own knight in shining armor,” Mary Alice said as a dark-haired man on a gray horse approached them. “Perhaps you will regret that we all agreed to travel incognito. He is handsome.”
“I thought the plan was to avoid gentlemen, handsome or otherwise,” Olivia said, but Mary Alice had no chance to reply because the man was now in earshot. He inclined his head and introduced himself as Mr. Christopher Stirling. The name did not initially mean anything to Olivia, but then he swept her a bow with a slant to his mouth that was unmistakably mocking, and a thought niggled. Stirling…
She just had time to gather the details of his height—rather tall—and his dark brown hair and chocolate eyes when he extended a hand from atop his horse with the bored expectancy of a lord waiting for a servant to produce some requested object. He had not even paused to hear her name!
Being that she was in fact the dowager Duchess of Coldbrook and that her two friends were also duchesses, she suspected he might have offered her a far different greeting if he’d known her identity. Ever since becoming a duchess when she’d married her beloved Harold years before, she had discovered for herself how very differently a duchess was treated than the plain fourth daughter of a baronet.
But while she appreciated the frequent kindness she was shown because of her title, sometimes she missed being simply Miss Thorpe. That her friends also yearned for a holiday from the duties of rank was one of the reasons the three of them had decided on this jaunt into the hidden corners of Yorkshire, during which they planned to pass themselves off as mere ladies. Though they had not, of course, foreseen the coach accident, which looked as though it was going to seriously delay their holiday plans.
Olivia gave an inward sigh of resignation. She had been so looking forward to the spa town, and to being with Francesca and Mary Alice, just the three of them again, as they hadn’t been for quite some time. Mary Alice and Francesca had been friends since finishing school, and Olivia had first met them some years before when they were all staying at Lyme Regis.
Francesca and Olivia had envisioned that this holiday to the spa town would be a welcome escape from the London Season and its fortune-hunting gentlemen, though Mary Alice had taken some convincing. Now, instead of it being just the three of them, they were to be cast on the mercy, however temporary, of these gentlemen.
“Pleased to make your acquaintance, sir,” Olivia said, ignoring his proffered arm. “I am Miss Olivia Thorpe. It’s kind of you and your friends to come to our aid with an offer of shelter.”
“Shan’t be able to aid you if you don’t take hold of my hand and mount up, ma’am,” he said in a tone that suggested he had little interest in whether she did. “You may set your foot atop mine in the stirrup.”
Olivia hesitated, wishing none of this was necessary. She disliked relying on others for help. And after nearly four years as a widow, she was accustomed to being independent and doing for herself.
But Francesca was already departing with Sir Greyville, and the third gentleman was making his way toward Mary Alice. Olivia did not have much choice. She took hold of Mr. Stirling’s outstretched hand and was pulled neatly, and with some force, to sit before him. His arm came around her, and he pressed her firmly against him with apparent unconcern for propriety. He promptly urged his horse into a walk.
“Sir.” She attempted to lean away and put some decorous space between herself and this stranger, though the chill and damp of the day had long since penetrated to her bones, and his body was exuding a welcome warmth.
“Yes?” he inquired.
Exasperating man! Any gentleman ought to intuit that a lady who was a stranger to him would not wish to be clutched tightly against his body. And that was the moment when she finally absorbed who he was: Christopher Kit Stirling, the Wastrel of White Horse Street, one of the most notorious rakes of the ton.
She knew the man only by reputation. They hardly moved in the same circles, and in any case, Olivia and Harold had spent the least amount of time possible in London each season—fulfilling the sorts of duties a duke and duchess could not evade—before returning gratefully to their country estate at the first opportunity.
Mr. Kit Stirling was the heir to the Earl of Roswell, from whom he was estranged, Olivia knew from ton gossip. Apparently, Mr. Stirling kept company with actresses and drunkards. He’d been involved in a notorious duel with Lord Candleford a few months before and had injured the man. It was rumored that he paid all his bills by gambling.
It was this last bit she knew the most about, because the nephew of her friend Lydia Woodson had recently lost his entire year’s allowance to Mr. Stirling at cards. Mr. Stirling held frequent high-stakes games in his home, Lydia had told Olivia. She had also whispered that the man was known to change one mistress for another with dizzying regularity.
Which thought made Olivia hide a secret smile. However long she would be required to be in Mr. Stirling’s company, she was unlikely to be of any interest to such a handsome, fast fellow. She had never been of interest to rakes and rogues, nor did she wish to be.
“There is no need for you to hold me in this manner,” she told him. “I will be quite stable without your assistance.” This was not entirely true, but as their pace on the wet road was necessarily sedate, she did not think she would fall.
“As you wish.” He removed his arm.
“Does Rose Heath estate belong to Sir Greyville?” she asked.
“No, to Colonel Stratton.”
“Colonel Nathaniel Stratton?”
Interesting. So Colonel Stratton was the third gentleman. Olivia had met him once or twice before, but Mary Alice knew the colonel and had something of an opinion about him. Things might prove interesting for her at least.
They proceeded in silence for some minutes, following along after Sir Greyville and Francesca. Olivia supposed she and her friends would have quite a laugh at some point about their rescue by three single gentlemen when their purpose in leaving London had been to avoid single gentlemen, and, in particular, fortune hunters. Though these men were unlikely to be seeking wealthy brides, ensconced as they were deep in the Yorkshire countryside while the Season—and the marriage mart—played out in London.
“What did you say your name was again, ma’am?”
“Miss Olivia Thorpe.”
She was tempted to call on the haughtiness that was a duchess’s privilege and deliver a stinging set-down, but alas, there was the matter of being in disguise.
“Fair Middling,” she said, giving the name of her childhood home, a rustic and wonderfully unimportant place that the Wastrel of White Horse Street was unlikely to know.
He snorted dismissively. Fortunately, as a plain, sensible woman, she’d long ago discovered how much more satisfying it was to please herself rather than trying to impress men.
“And where are you from, sir?”
“My home is in London, though I foolishly agreed to rusticate here with Trenton and Stratton. But what can one do when old friends press?”
“I value old friends more than anything, sir, and never consider their invitations a burden.”
“Then you are a better fellow than I.”
“Quite easy when I’m not a fellow at all.” What a ridiculous conversation she was having, riding a horse in far too close proximity to a stranger, who was taking her to the home of yet another stranger. Lydia had told her that Mr. Stirling was no longer welcome in certain respectable homes because of the low company he kept. Olivia had barely listened at the time, not being overly fond of gossip. But now she wished she had.
“Do you scorn the male sex, then, Miss Thorpe?”
His use of her maiden name jarred her. She had not been Miss Thorpe for ten years. For the first time, it struck her how eagerly, when Harold had proposed to her, she had abandoned her maiden name, along with everything else about herself that had felt old, dull, or just plain wrong. She had been twenty-four, a woman beginning to wonder if life would ever offer her a partner to complete her, and then she’d met Harold. He’d been her new beginning, her farewell to a life that had looked as though it would be very limited.
“Not at all. I have three brothers who are extremely dear to me, and I am very fond of the husbands of my friends.”
“But not too fond for the sake of propriety, one assumes?”
Honestly! Was it his goal to be as coarse as possible?
“I won’t dignify that with an answer, Mr. Stirling. Perhaps it would be better if we did not converse.”
Mocking laughter greeted her words, but at least he said nothing further as they made their way to Rose Heath estate.
She smelled like nothing. No hint of floral soap wafted around her, no perfume lingered on the air, warmed by her skin. There was not even a whiff of lavender from her clothes, which Kit thought remarkable, considering that it seemed to be the goal of every laundress in the country to infuse all clothing with the scent of lavender. He did not care for lavender; it smelled sharp and reminded him of anise, which he detested.
He and Miss Thorpe arrived just in time to see Grey and the first lady disappearing inside. Stratton and the third lady seemed to have disappeared, as there was no sign of them. It was as if he and his friends had already been paired off with the three women, a thought that annoyed Kit. He gestured for Miss Thorpe to precede him up the front steps and introduced her to Stratton’s housekeeper.
“She is another of the ladies who were stranded on the road,” he told the housekeeper, “of whom I believe you have already met one. I believe Stratton is bringing the last of them. At least, I think she was the last of them, as no more ladies emerged from the coach.”
“There were just the three of us,” Miss Thorpe supplied with that prim crinkling at the corner of her lips that was already becoming familiar.
He could envision Miss Thorpe at home in her doubtless tidy, properly run household, with perhaps three or four cats in residence, and a neat sewing basket in every room. No poetry or wine-drinking for her, he thought with an inward smirk as he observed the set line of her mouth.
With her neatly cut dark frock of good cloth and her simply styled, average brown hair (it reminded him of the color of autumn leaves once they’d lost their vivid reds and yellows) and her face that could only be called average as well, she was not the sort of woman who tempted him, never mind the stiffness he’d felt seize her when she’d come against him on the horse. She seemed to be entirely predictable and… average.