There were few people that Leopold Tilson IV, the Duke of Claybrook trusted. One of them being Lady Bethany Grey. It wasn’t simply trust, but also love. He had every intention of asking permission to court her until she, for no reason that he could fathom, pushed him into the Serpentine, and then refused to speak to him. That was a year and a half ago and nothing has changed.
Lady Bethany Grey had fallen in love with the Duke of Claybrook. Or at least she thought she had until she heard the truth from his very lips and realized that he was not the duke she thought him to be. Hurt and enraged, she did what any sensible lady would do and pushed him into the Serpentine and never looked back.
When she comes across him in the middle of the road trussed up like a Christmas Goose, it is up to her to save him. Between a battle of wills and bruised hearts, can the two reconcile their differences, or is it already too late?
Chapter One On a road near Singlewell, England ~ December 1817 ~ Restlessness led Leopold Tilson IV, the Duke of Claybrook, to travel later than one should, but he wished to reach his destination as soon as possible and knew that if he were to stop at an inn, he’d not sleep. However, he was wondering what had possessed him to drive from his home, Clarington Abbey in Westmorland, all the way to Faversham in Kent in an open conveyance and in the middle of December. Actually, he knew the reason. He hadn’t wanted to be cooped up in a crowded carriage with his two younger sisters, older sister, and brother. They would have driven him to madness.
As his siblings had taken the carriage, Leopold had been left with the cabriolet. It was not the best or wisest choice for traveling across England, but at least he wasn’t being pestered by siblings, which suited his disposition.
Yes, he was brooding and unpleasant to be around and it was for their sakes that he didn’t force them to endure his dark mood.
Leopold could think of no reason to be in poor spirits, especially since he should be celebrating. His younger twin, Crispin, had written that he and his wife, Vanessa, would be delayed in their return from Greece because she was expecting. The midwife had suggested that due to the considerable size of Vanessa’s abdomen, and that Crispin was a twin, that she might deliver the same. Leopold could only hope that at least one was a son as it would free him from the need to marry and produce that blasted heir and a spare.
It wasn’t that he was against marriage, but he’d yet to find the woman that he would want as that wife.
That was a lie. He had found a woman that he wished to wed, but she would not have him. Lady Bethany Grey. Beautiful, sweet, kind, intelligent, calm, and thoughtful. Leopold had just been on the verge of approaching Lady Bethany’s father to seek permission to court her when she, for no reason that he could discern, pushed him into the Serpentine. He had come up sputtering and shocked.
“Why did you do that?” he had demanded.
She had opened her mouth and he waited for her reasoning, but then she glanced about. They had gathered quite a crowd of those interested in their conversation.
“I shall not speak of it in public,” she said. “You may call on me to discuss the matter in private, though I do not expect you to.” She then turned on her heel and marched away from him.
Leopold had not called on her because a more pressing matter had arisen and by the time he was free, the Season had ended and everyone had returned to the country, including Lady Bethany.
The following spring, Lady Bethany would not so much as look at him.
Misses and ladies had flocked to him since he had become the Duke of Claybrook at the age of eight and ten in hopes of becoming his duchess with little thought for him. He had thought Lady Bethany was different. He truly believed that she saw him, for himself, and not a duke to be trapped.
Or, maybe she did see him for himself and found him lacking, which was a most disconcerting thought. Leopold rubbed his eyes as they began to burn. It had been foolish to travel so late, especially now that clouds covered the moon. He could barely see down the road and would need to stop at the next inn whether he was tired or not because he’d not have his horse injured.
His horse neighed the moment before men ran from the bushes and trees and for him. One tossed a rope around the neck of his horse, pulling it and the cabriolet to a halt while two other men came for him.
He hadn’t thought highwaymen haunted the roads in England any longer, though there were enough ruffians about.
“Take what you will and leave me be,” he ordered.
“Oh weez takin’ we is,” one of the men answered as he produced a pistol. “Now get out and off with yer clothes.”
Leopold exited the cabriolet, but that was all. “My clothing?” he questioned in outrage.
“Ye heard him. All of ’em, and those fine boots too,” another ordered.
“You mean to leave me here, without my clothing?”
“Ta keeps ye from following.”
“Bloody hell! I will not follow.”
“No, ye won’t ’cause we are takin’ your clothes, boots, horse, and this little carriage.”
“It is a cabriolet.”
“It will still fetch a fine coin.”
“It is winter. I will freeze.” Not to mention the embarrassment of being found quite naked in the middle of the road, or if he needed to approach an inn or home for help.
He glanced over to his horse, still held by one of the men as another went through his portmanteau that had been stashed on the floor.
“We’ll leave ya a blanket and rug.” Which the man tossed into the road. These Leopold had kept in case the weather turned uncomfortably cool.
“Off with ye clothes.”
Leopold stared at the pistol and weighed his decisions. He could risk his life by fighting or face eventual embarrassment of being stranded and naked. When a second man produced a pistol, Leopold decided retaining his dignity was not worth getting shot. Slowly he undressed, but paused when he came to his trousers because once they were gone, he would be the most vulnerable. With both pistols trained on him, Leopold grimaced and began to undo the placket but before he could finish, pain sliced through his skull. *** Bethany had wanted to travel to Kent and spend Christmas with her family but had declined. Her cousin, Angelo, had invited his wife’s family, which included the Duke of Claybrook. Therefore, she had claimed that she was needed in London to oversee the gentlewomen’s club she owned with her dearest friend Tessa, now the Duchess of Ellings.
However, as Society left London for country estates, the clientele diminished, and few visited to enjoy lively discussions involving art, sciences, and politics. Worse, fewer were gambling at the tables, and it cost more to pay the staff than the club was bringing in. Therefore, she had decided to close and send everyone away to enjoy the holiday.
What she hadn’t anticipated, however, was that the silence within the club, and in her set of rooms above, would become deafening and Bethany suffered a loneliness like never before. She also experienced a pang of guilt and was filled with regret for not joining her family.
Why should she let a very unpleasant and boorish duke keep her from celebrating Christmas with her family? Besides, her uncle was ill, and it would likely be his last holiday.
It irritated Bethany to no end that she had first allowed Claybrook to wield such power over her decisions but then decided that she’d simply pretend that he was not there and ignore him the best she could as she had done since she had pushed him into the Serpentine. Unfortunately, this left her traveling to Kent on her own, and staying in inns, but she had two footmen riding beside the carriage and therefore, she should be quite safe.
On their second day of travel, Bethany had insisted that they leave as early as possible so that they could make Faversham that night, no matter how late they arrived. Therefore, as the sun was rising, she entered her carriage, and they were on their way. But before long the carriage slowed and she glanced out the window to see where they were, but nothing was around, only trees on either side.
Trepidation slid down her spine. Any manner of thieves could be hiding within the wood. Not that she’d heard of highwaymen being in the area. In fact, they were a thing of myth and legends. Still, one could not be too cautious. A quick glance to the footman riding beside the carriage brought some relief as he did not appear to be concerned so Bethany set her worries aside. When the carriage came to a full halt, she rose from her seat and opened the door before hopping to the road. “What is amiss?”
“There is something in the middle of the road, Lady Bethany.”
She frowned and walked forward “A rug?” she asked when she spied what appeared to be a rolled-up carpet.
“We will have it moved out of the way quickly,” her driver promised as the footman approached, bent and was ready to lift.
“It is not a rug, but a man wrapped in a blanket and then a rug.”
“A man?” she questioned as she hurried forward. He was wrapped from head to toe without anything exposed except a bit of hair. Further he was tightly bound with a rope about his ankles and another about his chest. “Is he alive?”
“He is breathing, but not conscious,” the footman answered.
“Do you think he was being kidnapped and fell off the back of a wagon?” she asked.
“Or he is a criminal, and this was the only way to keep him from running off.”
“Regardless, we must help him,” she insisted.
The footman bent and rolled him onto his back before pushing the dark hair back.
Bethany gasped. Even though blood covered one side of his face, and his hair was matted and a mess, she still recognized him. “Get him into the carriage.”
“He might be a criminal,” the footman reminded her.
“That is the Duke of Claybrook.”
Oh, she may find him boorish and difficult, and she had fully intended to ignore him during the holiday, but that didn’t mean that she had wanted Claybrook to come to any harm and she certainly would not leave him in the middle of the road trussed up like a Christmas goose.
“Should we unwrap him first?” a footman asked. “He is a duke.”
“It is easier to carry him this way,” the other answered.
If Claybrook woke up, he may demand that he be untied, but as he was unconscious, and given his size, it was probably best to move him while he was all bound up.
“Once he is in the carriage, you will need to drive to the nearest town as quickly as possible,” she explained. “That would be Singlewell, the hamlet we just left.”
“Then we shall return to the coaching inn, and you will go in search of a doctor.”
The footmen struggled to first lift Claybrook and then carry and settle him in the carriage. He was not a small man, taller than most, and at no time did he wake nor did his eyelids flutter.
Bethany scrambled into the carriage and took a seat across from him and used her handkerchief to wipe away some of the blood, but much of it was dried.
“What happened to you? Who would do this?” she asked even though she’d not get an answer.