Authors: Lavinia Kent
The night was evidently not going to end the way he desired.
If it wouldn’t have been less than manly, he’d have turned and run—fast.
“You have a baby.” They were not the most intelligent words he had ever spoken.
“Yes.” Her reply allowed that she might truly consider him an idiot.
“Why are you out here?” That was slightly more sensible.
“Because I love to stroll while the sweet stench of manure perfumes the early hours of the morning.”
No, she was neither pleased with him, nor thought he had a brain in his head. “It was a sincere question. I would have thought you’d stay safe in the inn with such a sweet child. Surely he should have been abed hours ago.”
“Are you trying to be a fool? I am out here because I was ordered out by your master, the duke’s man. A man who clearly has even less going on between the ears than you. What other type of man would send a woman and infant out into the cold—and don’t you dare tell me that it’s not that cold—because the duke must get his sleep and no screaming child can be allowed to disturb that? And that doesn’t even begin to address his plans to cover the cock.”
Mark pulled his shoulders back. Divers must have spoken to her, and not kindly. Still, it was not the done thing to allow one’s servants to be insulted.
“I am sure the man had his reasons for his behavior. You must have not understood.”
Miss Smith stepped toward him. A second fist had joined the first in waving through the opening of her cloak. Her mouth started to open, but then she shut it. Palpable weariness spread from her. She bent her head until her chin disappeared within the folds of her cloak. A soft, pleasant hum whispered out. She turned from him and began to walk away with that enchanting sway—a sway that had a very different meaning now that he knew what she held. She walked all the way to the door of the stable. Her posture stiffened and he could tell she was deciding whether to face the dark interior or to turn back toward him.
And strolled, and swayed.
She drew level to him. He could see she was biting tight down on her lip. “I am not mistaken. I know exactly what that man said.”
She walked past him again and turned sharply on her heels when she reached the inn. The child was quieting and her sway was becoming more of a march.
She passed him again and said, “He evidently believes that having a livery more grand than any I’ve seen gives him rights over us lesser beings.”
Yes, it had definitely been Divers.
She reached the wall of the stable.
Came back again. “All I can say is that Strattington must believe he’s quite the duke, to expect that babies and roosters will fall silent for him.”
Mark watched as she passed. He wished he could explain the true problem to her: he still wasn’t quite sure he believed he was a duke at all.
he knew she was saying too much. Isabella wished she could stay quiet. Her whole life would have been so much simpler if only she’d been able to keep her lips closed. Of course she’d never been able to and it didn’t seem like she was going to start now when her thoughts felt soggier than toast soaked in tea.
Slipping a glance out of the corner of her eye, she debated whether the man was angered by her words. He was every bit as much the duke’s man as the one in the fine braid who’d sent her out into the night. She must remember that. His shoulders had drawn back at her last whispered outburst, but he didn’t seem unduly distressed. His lips were more tightly pressed than previously, but it was hard to be sure. If only he’d step out of the shadows. The night was dark enough that even with the dim light of the moon full upon him it would have been hard to see. If he stayed hidden beneath the eaves of the stable it was nigh impossible.
At least he seemed unrelated to her pursuers. He had not tried to grab her or whispered her real name from the shadows. He had not demanded that she turn “it” over and then disappeared before she even knew what “it” was. If the fatigue did not kill her, then the constant worry would.
She turned back to him, her tone sharper than she intended. “What’s your name? You didn’t say. It was rude to ask me and not supply your own.” She couldn’t go on thinking of him as “the man.” It was only proper that she learn his name. She probably didn’t need to add the bit about his lack of manners, but once again her lips were moving faster than her brain.
The wall of the inn loomed before her and she turned neatly, a bit of extra rock-and-sway as Joey wiggled slightly against her breast. It wouldn’t do at all if he began to scream again. She still had some hope of making it to her bed for at least an hour or two. She needed rest if she was to decide the next step in her life. Perhaps Joey would slumber late in the morning and she’d have a chance for a bit of extra sleep herself. If Mrs. Wattington heard there was a duke at the inn she’d probably delay her own departure, and Isabella might even manage a waking hour without Joey attached to her hip. She wasn’t sure she even knew how to stand upright without him anymore.
“Do you always ask questions and then not wait for the answers?” The man’s voice spoke out of the darkness.
Pins and needles, she’d forgotten him again. If she didn’t get sleep soon she’d forget her own name—Miss Isabella Hermione Masters. She should have used her middle name once she’d run from her brother’s home, but somehow she’d never been able to see herself as a Hermione. She could even have taken a new name. Mary Smith. That would have raised no questions, brought no curiosity.
“Are you even listening?” The man spoke again.
She slowed her pacing and turned toward him. Joey’s head was limp against her bosom and it seemed he’d finally drifted off again. “I am sorry.”
“You’re sorry? We’ve been acquainted for all of five minutes and already I’ve the feeling those words don’t pass your lips very often.”
Isabella would have commented on his rudeness if she hadn’t been so aware of her own. “I fear I am just a bit tired from watching Joey—not on my best form at all.”
The man nodded. That much she could see.
“So do you want to know?” he said.
“My name. You did ask.”
She wanted to sag against the building and close her eyes for a week—that was what she wanted. She wanted not to worry anymore. She was so tired of worrying. “Yes, of course.”
“It’s Mark Smythe. That’s why I was surprised by your name.”
“I never thought you could hear the Y but when you say it I know it’s there. Why is that?” Gads, she was rambling. Tired, and rude, and rambling. It was amazing the man hadn’t just turned and left. Of course he still needed to cover the rooster. He might have implied he found the matter as unnecessary as she, but it was his job.
She bobbed her hip a bit, feeling Joey settle even more comfortably against her.
“I suppose I was brought up to say it that way. I’ve never thought about it, but I’ve always been taught the importance of that Y.”
“I can’t believe we’re standing in the yard in the middle of the night discussing whether
sounds different than
“I would admit it was not how I imagined I’d be spending my evening either—none of the possibilities I considered came close to this.” He stepped forward and she could feel his glance upon her. She shivered at the intensity of that gaze, automatically dropping her chin into the folds of her cloak. She didn’t know him. There was no way he could recognize her. So why did he stare so intently?
She hadn’t feared being recognized in nearly a year. It was seeing her pursuers again that had her in such a state. She’d thought she’d lost them in Norwich when she’d taken the position with the Wattingtons. And she was drawing nearer to London. She had promised she would never go back.
Still, Mr. Smythe was a servant—just like her. There was no reason to be afraid.
She peeked up at him.
His hair was dark, very dark. She’d assumed it was the shadows that had kept him hidden, but as he moved into the moonlight she could see that almost everything about him was dark—his hair, his eyes, his clothes. His skin was less so, but still of a deeper hue than she was accustomed to. Few men had skin the sun had so clearly touched, but then ever since she’d been in service she’d dealt only with footmen, butlers, and porters. The grooms and laborers hardly ever came up to the nursery floors, and she rarely ate in the kitchens with the rest of the servants. She wondered how far the color extended.
“You’re staring.” His voice drew her from her reverie.
“It’s simply hard to see. I don’t think I’ve ever had such a long conversation with a man I couldn’t see.”
“Will it disturb the child if I light the lamp?” He gestured to a tin lamp hanging from the eaves above the door. “I would admit to my own curiosity about you. It’s not often a women comes to me speaking of cocks, particularly not one with a babe in arms.”
“A cock.” She whispered the word to herself.
Is that what he’d thought?
She felt a deep flush of color rise in her cheeks. She dropped her face back to Joey, deep in the folds of her cloak. “I meant that you were supposed to put something over the rooster’s head so that he wouldn’t know when the sun was up.”
“Oh. I’d forgotten about that.”
“You’d forgotten what you were sent out here to do?”
“Yes—well, no. That wasn’t my task.”
She glanced about, trying to see if there was somebody else in the yard. “Then who was supposed to do it?” It was a bit unsettling to realize she didn’t even know that much about who she was talking to. “You are one of the duke’s men, though, aren’t you? One of his men?”
“I do travel with Strattington’s party.”
That was not quite a straightforward answer, but she was simply too tired to make proper sense out of it.
She glanced up at the lantern, considered. She didn’t know him—he couldn’t know her. She’d never met the Duke of Strattington, why would his servant recognize her? “Yes, you can light it. He’s well covered and once he’s asleep light doesn’t wake him—not as long as I keep moving. We could be under the noonday sun and he’d slumber on.” Unless some fool decided to pound on the door the moment he fell asleep.
There was a brief spark and then a moment later the lantern glowed with light.
Isabella stepped back, hoping her mouth had not fallen open. He was beautiful. Mr. Smythe was simply beautiful. It was not a word she normally applied to males above the age of six, but she could think of no other that fit as well.
. He was certainly that as well.
That was a word you could use for a man.
His dark hair lit golden at the ends under the flickering light and his shoulders— She couldn’t even think of a word to describe his shoulders. They were far broader than she had realized, and the close-cut tailoring of his coat left little to the imagination. If she hadn’t been holding Joey she was afraid she would have reached out and caressed the soft wool. Even with Joey her fingers longed to reach out and stroke it—stroke him.
Trying to hide her response she turned away, bobbing Joey with more vigor than necessary.
“Do you get tired of holding him? I imagine it must pull on your arms after a while.”
ark didn’t know why he’d said the words. He’d never thought about the weight of a baby before and wasn’t aware that he’d been thinking about it now. What he did know was that he wanted to see her face more closely. He should have thought about lighting the lantern sooner. He’d considered her face angelic in the moonlight, but in the full light of the lantern she was much more interesting. She still had the balanced purity of an angel, but there was something more, some flicker of life and fun that he couldn’t quite define. She was tired, her eyes shadowed and her shoulders drooping, but he knew with a deep certainty that if she smiled her whole demeanor would change, that she’d glow brighter than the lantern.
He was being fanciful again. She was a woman, simply a woman. A pretty one. Perhaps even a beautiful one, but he’d had more beautiful women chasing him since his cousin’s death a few years ago, when he’d become his uncle’s heir, than he could even begin to count. The finest diamonds in London had allowed that they would receive his intentions—his honorable intentions—most favorably. And there’d been other women, older women, more experienced women who’d made it abundantly clear that they didn’t care if his intentions were honorable or not—in fact they often preferred the latter.
“Yes, I must admit it can get tiring carrying Joey. He’s gained so much weight in the last few weeks that I can barely believe it. He weighed almost nothing when I first came to care for him two months ago.”
That brought his head up. “He’s not yours then?”
She chuckled softly. “No, I am only the baby nurse. His mother is Mrs. Wattington. This”—she turned the baby so he could see the fat, scrunched face peeking out from her cloak—“is Master Joseph Wattington. We’re heading to London to meet his father and attend the king’s coronation.”
Her laugh had died as the sentence progressed. There was something she was not happy with. What woman would be unhappy about a trip to London for the coronation?
The baby was not hers.
The thought filled his mind. He’d never been a man for fooling with the servants, but she wasn’t his servant and how was a man to resist the delightful blush that still stained her cheeks? He was sure it had arisen when she’d whispered the word
. He’d forgotten all about his uncle’s ridiculous habit of shrouding every bird around lest one wake him early from his slumbers. Mark would never have required such a thing, but clearly the servants were still acting on their own idea of what a duke should be.
He shook his head lightly. He had to get over these thoughts of what a duke should and shouldn’t be, and whether he could ever live up to the ideal. He knew exactly what a duke should be. He’d had years of observing first his grandfather and then his uncle in the role. Even if he’d never thought to occupy the position he knew how a duke behaved.
He’d never thought to be a soldier either, but he’d done well enough at that during those horrible years in Belgium and France. Nobody could have been prepared for what he’d experienced during that time, but he’d survived.
If he could survive that, he could survive being a duke.
“You seem very lost in thought.” Miss Smith’s quiet voice drew him back. “Do you think the duke is asleep?”
“No. I am sure he’s not.” Mark answered without thought.
“You sound disappointed. Do you really care about Strattington’s sleeping habits?”
“It’s just that I don’t dare take Joey back until I am sure the duke is soundly asleep. I am afraid he’ll fuss a bit when I put him down.”
Mark could not resist. “You’re afraid the duke will fuss?”
“Oh don’t be funny. I am much too tired for that. Of course if I do bring Joey in and the duke is asleep and Joey screams and the duke wakes up and—”
“Do you always worry this much?”
She breathed out a long sigh. “No. I don’t worry nearly enough most of the time. I suppose it’s being so tired and knowing there isn’t a right thing to do.”
“I am not sure I understand.”
“If I bring the baby in and he wakes the duke and Mrs. Wattington hears, she’s likely to dismiss me. She’s been through three baby nurses already. I was actually hired by her husband to be her companion, but when the last nurse left she handed Joey to me. I think she thought I was too young to be her companion. I am surprised she kept me at all—although I think that’s only because she knew she had this trip to make and she didn’t want to risk having to care for Joey herself. On the other hand, if I don’t bring the baby in and stay here with him all night then she’s likely to fear I’ve endangered his health and dismiss me for that. I am not sure there’s a way to win.”
“Well, if you say she doesn’t want to travel alone with the child, then it seems rather unlikely she’d dismiss you before you reach Town. I can’t imagine this is a good place to find a new baby nurse.” Mark glanced at the few small buildings that stood across the road from the inn.
He glanced back at Miss Smith. She did not seem reassured by his answer. “I am not sure that’s any better. I’d rather not be looking for employment in London.”
“I would think it’s an excellent place for a young woman of qualification to find a post.”
“If I had a reference—I am not sure Mrs. Wattington would write me one if she could claim I’d been lax in my responsibilities. Granted I am not sure she’ll give me one anyway. I rather believe she dislikes me.”
Mark paused, catching himself before he offered to write her one himself. He didn’t think she’d appreciate knowing he was the Duke of Strattington and that, however unwittingly, he’d caused her to be walking the stable yard. “I am sure the duke will not mind if you take the young fellow in. He is not an unreasonable man.”