Read in bed with the duke epub format

Authors: Annie Burrows

in bed with the duke

“Vile seducer of women!”

Of all the accusations Gregory, Duke of Halstead, has ever had leveled at him, this is perhaps the most offensive and the least accurate. But as he has just woken naked in bed with no memory of the night before, next to a beautiful stranger, perhaps it's time to reevaluate!

Innocent Prudence is just as shocked when she awakens! But as these strangers begin to unravel the plot behind the scandalous circumstances, she discovers the delicious consequences of finding herself in bed with...a duke!

“I am no seducer of innocents.” Indignation had him vaulting out of the bed.

A crowd of interested bystanders were peering into his room with a mixture of shock and disapproval.

With a low snarl, he stalked stark naked across the room and slammed the door shut on the whole crowd of them.

Then shot the bolt home for good measure.

He turned, slowly, wondering just exactly what sort of female he had found in such a ramshackle inn, in such a dreary little town. He took a good look at the girl who was sitting up in the bed, with the covers clutched up to her chin.

Contrary to what he'd half expected, she was a pretty little thing, with a cloud of chestnut curls and a pair of huge brown eyes.

Which was an immense relief. He may have lost his memory, but at least he hadn't lost his good taste.

Praise for Annie Burrows

“The poignancy and humor will make any reader a Burrows fan.”

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The Captain's Christmas Bride

“[A] passionate and emotional tale readers will love.”

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A Mistress for Major Bartlett

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Never Trust a Rake

Annie Burrows

In Bed with the Duke

Annie Burrows
has been writing Regency romances for Harlequin since 2007. Her books have charmed readers worldwide, having been translated into nineteen different languages, and some have gone on to win the coveted Reviewers' Choice Award from
. For more information, or to contact the author, please visit
, or you can find her on Facebook at

Books by Annie Burrows

Harlequin Historical

Brides of Waterloo

A Mistress for Major Bartlett

Stand-Alone Novels

One Candlelit Christmas
“The Rake's Secret Son”
The Earl's Untouched Bride
A Countess by Christmas
Gift-Wrapped Governess
“Governess to Christmas Bride”
Captain Corcoran's Hoyden Bride
An Escapade and an Engagement
Never Trust a Rake
Reforming the Viscount
Portrait of a Scandal
Lord Havelock's List
The Captain's Christmas Bride
In Bed with the Duke

Harlequin Historical Undone! ebooks

Notorious Lord, Compromised Miss
His Wicked Christmas Wager

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for more titles.

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Once again, my thanks to the Novelistas for constant support, brainstorming when necessary, and cake.


Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Excerpt from
More Than a Lover
by Ann Lethbridge

Chapter One

ile seducer of women!'

Gregory winced and pulled the quilt up over his ears. What kind of inn was this? Surely even travellers to such a Godforsaken backwater shouldn't have to put up with deranged females bursting into their rooms and screeching at them before breakfast?

‘Oh! What wickedness!'

Pulling the quilt up round his ears clearly wasn't a strong enough hint that deranged females weren't welcome in his room. For the voice was definitely getting louder. Coming closer.

‘What is the world coming to?'

Just what he'd like to know, he thought resentfully, dragging his eyelids open and seeing the owner of the strident voice standing right over him, jabbing a bony finger at his face.

‘How could you?' the bony-fingered, screeching woman shouted into his face.
into his face.

Enough was enough. He knew that public inns were of necessity frequented by...well, by the public. But surely even here a man was entitled to some privacy? At least in his own bedchamber?

‘Who,' he said, in the arctic tone that normally caused minions to shake in their shoes, ‘let you into my room?'

‘Who let me into your room? Why, I let
in, of course.' She smote her breast theatrically. ‘
have I been so shocked!'

‘Well, if you will invade a man's chamber what can you expect?'

‘Oh!' the woman cried again, this time laying the back of one hand across her brow. ‘Was
there such a villain? Truly, your soul must be stained black with depravity if you can treat the seduction of innocence with such levity!'

Seduction of innocence?
The woman must be fifty if she was a day. And
room. Nothing innocent about that.

‘And as for you!' The screeching woman's finger moved to a point somewhere to his left side. ‘

Trollop? There was a trollop in his bed as well as a hysterical woman standing next to it?

A brief foray with his left foot confirmed that, yes, indeed there was another pair of legs in his bed. A slender pair of legs. Belonging, he had to suppose, to the trollop in question.

He frowned. He wasn't in the habit of taking trollops to his bed. Nor any other kind of woman. He always, but
, visited theirs. So that he could retire once he'd reduced them to a state of boneless satiation and get a peaceful night's sleep at home. In his own bed. Where he heartily wished he was now. For there wouldn't be a strange woman in his bed if he'd stayed at home. Nor, which was more to the point, would
be daring to stand over him screeching.

‘How could you repay me by behaving like this?' The hysterical woman was still ranting. ‘After all I have done for you? All the sacrifices I have made?'

Her voice was rising higher and higher. And getting louder and louder. But even so there seemed to be a sort of fog shrouding his brain. He couldn't for the life of him pierce through that fog to work out why there was a woman in his bed. He couldn't believe he'd hired her. Because he had never needed to hire a woman. So how did she come to be here?

How, for that matter, did
come to be here?

And how was he to work it out with that harpy shrieking at him?

He put his hands over his ears.

‘You ingrate!'

No use. He could still hear her.

‘Madam,' he said coldly, removing his hands from his ears, since ignoring her in the faint hope that she might go away wasn't working. ‘Lower your voice.'

‘Lower my voice?
Lower my voice?
Oh, yes, that would suit you just fine, would it not? So that your vile misdeed might be covered up!'

‘I have never,' he said in outrage, ‘committed
vile misdeed.' Nor used the kind of language that more properly belonged on the stage.

He pressed the heels of his hands to his temples. His throbbing temples. How much must he have had to drink last night to wind up in bed with a trollop he couldn't remember hiring and be parroting the vulgar phrases of a woman who seemed intent on dragging him into some kind of...

‘Get out of my room,' he growled.

‘How dare you order me about?'

‘How dare
?' He opened his eyes. Glared at the screeching woman. Sat up. ‘No. How dare
? How dare you walk into my room and address me in that impudent manner? Fling accusations at me?'

‘Because you have seduced my own lamb! My—'

Indignation had him vaulting out of the bed.

‘I am no seducer of innocents!'

The woman shrieked even more loudly than before. Covered her eyes and stumbled towards the door. The
door. Where she had to push her way through a crowd of interested bystanders. Who were all peering into his room with a mixture of shock and disapproval.

Except in the case of a plump girl he recognised as the chambermaid. She was gazing at him round-eyed and slack-jawed.

At which point he realised he was stark naked.

With a low snarl he stalked across the room and slammed the door shut on the whole crowd of them.

Then shot the bolt home for good measure.

He had a brief flash of his nurse, clucking her tongue and quoting that proverb about shutting the stable door after the horse had bolted.

No horse. He shook his head. A horse was about the only thing that
appear to have wandered into his room while he lay sleeping.

Sleeping like the dead. Which made no sense. How had he managed to get to sleep at all? When he'd decided to rack up here for the night he'd suspected he wouldn't be getting a wink of sleep. Other, similar inns in which he'd stayed had made a restful night well-nigh impossible. If it wasn't travellers in hobnailed boots tramping up and down the corridor at all hours, or coaches rattling into the inn yard with their guards blowing their horns as though it was the last trump, it was yokels with lusty voices bellowing at each other in the tap. Over which his room was always inevitably situated.

Although this chambermaid had brought him to a room right up in the eaves. So the noise wouldn't have been an issue. Had he been so exhausted after the events of the past few days that he'd slipped into a state resembling a coma?

It wasn't likely. And it didn't explain the muzzy feeling in his head. That felt more as though he'd taken some kind of sleeping draught.

Except that he'd never taken a sleeping draught in his life. And he couldn't believe he'd suddenly decided to do so now.

He rubbed his brow in a vain effort to clear his mind. If he could only recall the events of the previous night.

He concentrated. Ferociously.

He could remember having a brief wash and going down for dinner. And being served with a surprisingly good stew. The beef had melted in his mouth. And there had been cabbage and onions and a thick hunk of really good bread to mop up the rich gravy. He remembered congratulating himself as he'd come up the stairs on stumbling across an inn that served such good food.

After that—nothing.

Could the overseer and his accomplice have attacked him on the way upstairs? Had they followed him and sneaked up on him, intent on getting revenge? He felt the back of his head but didn't find any lumps or cuts. No sign that anyone had struck him with a blunt instrument. It was about the only thing they
used. They certainly hadn't hesitated to use their boots when they'd managed to knock him to the ground.

Not that he'd stayed down for long. A feeling of satisfaction warmed him. He flexed the fingers of his right hand, savouring the sting of grazed knuckles. It was one thing practising the science in a boxing saloon, where due deference was always given to regular customers, quite another to rise triumphant from an impromptu mill with a brace of bullies who had neither known who he was nor fought fair.

But, still, that didn't answer the question of why this harridan had burst, shrieking, into his bedroom, nor the female he'd apparently taken to his bed without having any recollection of so much as meeting her.

He turned slowly, wondering just exactly what sort of female he had found in such a ramshackle inn, in such a dreary little town.

He took a good look at the girl, who was sitting up in the bed with the covers clutched up to her chin.

Contrary to what he'd half expected she was a pretty little thing, with a cloud of chestnut curls and a pair of huge brown eyes.

Which was an immense relief. He might have lost his memory, but at least he hadn't lost his good taste.

* * *

Prudence rubbed her eyes. Shook her head. She'd never had a dream like this before. Not as bad as this, at any rate. She had sometimes had nightmares featuring her aunt Charity, for despite her name her mother's sister was the kind of cold, harsh woman who was bound to give a girl the occasional nightmare, but never—not in even the most bizarre ones that had invaded her sleep when she'd been feverish—had her aunt spoken such gibberish. Nor had she ever had the kind of dream in which a naked man invaded her room. Her bed.

He'd stalked to the door and shut it, thankfully, though not before she'd realised that the landlord was staring at her chest. Her

Why hadn't she checked to see if she was naked before sitting up? And why
she naked? Where was her nightgown? Her nightcap? And why wasn't her hair neatly braided? What was going on?

The naked man by the door was ruffling his closely cropped light brown hair repeatedly, as though his head hurt. And he was muttering something about horses and gravy.



Her stomach lurched. She had a clear recollection of snuggling up against that man a few minutes ago. He'd had his arms round her. It had felt...lovely. But then she'd thought it was all part of a pleasant dream, in which someone was holding her, making her feel safe for once. Loved.

Instead he'd probably...

She swallowed. Heaven alone knew what he'd done to her.

And now he was standing between her and the door. The door he'd just bolted.

Don't come near me. Don't turn round. Don't turn round.

He turned round.

Looked at her searchingly.

Appeared to like what he saw.

Started walking back to the bed.

She opened her mouth to scream for help. But the only sound that issued from her parched throat was a sort of indignant squeak.

She worked her tongue against the roof of her mouth, desperately trying to find some moisture so that she could call for help.

Though from whom? That landlord? The man who'd just taken a good look at her breasts?

Aunt Charity? Who'd come in here and called her a trollop? didn't look as though she needed to call for help just yet. The man was standing still. Fists on his hips. Glaring down at her.

Glaring down from a face she suddenly recognised. Now that she was actually looking at it. And not at those broad, bare shoulders. Or the bruised ribcage. Or the... Well, she'd never seen a naked man before. She couldn't help looking at
. Even though she knew she shouldn't.

But anyway, now that she was looking at his face she knew she'd seen it before. Last night. In the dining room.

He'd been sitting in the corner, at a table all on his own. Looking dangerous. And it hadn't been just the bruise to his jaw, or the fact that one eye had been swelling and darkening, or that he'd had the grazed knuckles of a man who'd clearly just been in a fist fight. It had been the cold atmosphere that had surrounded him. The chill emanating from steel-grey eyes that had dared anyone to try and strike up a conversation, or walk too closely past his table, or serve him with anything that didn't meet his expectations.

She hadn't noticed him observing her. But he must have been doing so. He must have somehow known she was in a room on her own and followed her up here, and then...

But at that point her mind drew a blank.

He hadn't handled her roughly—that much she knew. Because she didn't feel the slightest bit sore anywhere. Though perhaps she hadn't put up much of a struggle. Perhaps she'd known it would have been useless, given the size of the muscles bulging out all over that huge, great body...

‘It won't work!'

‘Pardon?' The word just managed to crawl over her teeth.

‘This—' The big, dangerous, naked man waved his arm round the room. Ended up pointing at her. ‘This attempt to compromise me.'

Compromise? What an odd choice of word. Besides, if anyone was compromised it was her.

She tried clearing her throat, in order to point this out, but he'd whirled away from her. Was striding round the room, pouncing on various items of clothing that lay on the floor. He bundled them up and threw them at her.

‘Get dressed and get out,' he snarled. And then, for good measure, he drew the hangings around the bed, as though to blot out the very sight of her.

Which at least gave her the privacy to scramble into what turned out to be the clothes she'd been wearing last night. Clothes which had been scattered all over the room as though they'd been torn off in a frenzy and dropped just anywhere.

Which wasn't like her at all. She was always meticulous about folding her clothes and placing everything she might need upon rising close at hand. It was a habit ingrained during the first dozen years of her life, when the ability to move out of a billet at a moment's notice might have meant the difference between life and death.

Still, she wasn't going to dwell on that. If ever there was a time to make a swift exit then that time was now. She needed to get decently dressed, as fast as was humanly possible, and out of this room before the gigantic, angry, naked man changed his mind about letting her go.

She untangled her chemise and pulled it on over her head. Reached for her stays. And considered. It would take some time to wriggle it into a comfortable position and do up all the laces. Better just to get her gown on and get out of here.

When she peeped out through the bed hangings she saw that he was sitting on a chair, stamping his feet into a pair of scuffed, rather baggy boots.

Which reminded her. Shoes. Where were her shoes?

There. Right by the door. Next to each other, although one was lying on its side.

She grabbed her stays and waited until the man—the no longer naked man, since he'd pulled on some breeches and a shirt—reached for his second boot. He didn't look like the kind of man who'd sacrifice his dignity by hopping after her. So as he started easing his foot down the leg of that boot she made a dash for the door.

As quickly as she could, she thrust her feet into her shoes, and went to open the door.

It wouldn't budge.

She tugged and tugged at it, but no matter how hard she pulled, or how frantically she turned the handle, she simply couldn't get it open.

And the man must have got his second boot on. Because she could hear him walking across the room. He was coming in her direction.

In panic, she dropped her stays so she could tug at the handle with both hands. But she wasn't quick enough. He'd come right behind her. Was reaching up. Over her head.

And drawing the bolt free.

The bolt
. In her panic to escape she'd forgotten all about the bolt.

‘Allow me,' said the man, opening the door and making a mockingly courteous gesture with one hand.

Before putting the other on her back.

And shoving her out onto the landing.

The beast. The rude, nasty, horrible man! He hadn't even let her pick up her stays! Not that she really wanted to be seen running round an inn with her stays in full view in her hands.

But still— Her lower lip trembled. If she'd had a drop of moisture in her parched body she was sure tears would have sprung to her eyes.

She rubbed at them, but got no relief. The gesture only made the landing spin, and then sort of ripple—the way the surface of a pond rippled when you threw in a pebble.

And there was something else odd about the landing. It all seemed to be the wrong way round. True, she hadn't spent much time exploring the place when they'd arrived, but it had been such an odd little space, up under the eaves, that it was bound to have stuck in her mind. The owner of the inn had made clever use of his attics, fashioning three rooms around three sides at the top of his property, with the head of the stairwell and a broad landing taking up the fourth side. Last night, when she'd come up the stairs, she'd had to go right round the narrow gallery which bordered the stairwell to reach her room. But now she was standing right next to the staircase, which meant she hadn't been in
room just now.

But his.

Why had she been in his room? Could she have stumbled, sleepily, into the wrong room last night?, that wasn't it. She distinctly recalled starting to get ready for bed and her aunt coming in with a drink of hot milk.

A sound from inside the room she'd just shared with a total stranger made her jump out of her skin.

She shouldn't be loitering here. Who was to say he wouldn't change his mind and drag her back inside?

With legs that felt like cotton wool, she made her way round the gallery. She passed the door to the room where her aunt and her... She shook her head. She still couldn't think of her aunt's new husband as her uncle. He was no relation of hers. It was bad enough having to share her home with him, let alone address the old skinflint as though he was family.

She stumbled to a halt in the doorway that stood open.
was her room. She was
this had been her room. The bed was just where it should be. And the washstand. And the little dormer window with the seat underneath on which she'd knelt to peer down at the view. She'd been able to see along the road that led to the market square. Even from this doorway she could just spy the top of the market cross.

But—where were her things? Her trunk should be just there, at the foot of the bed. Her hatbox beside it. Her toiletries, brush and comb should be on the washstand.

Confused, she tottered round the landing to the back of the house, to the room her aunt and the vile Mr Murgatroyd were sharing. There was nothing for it. She'd have to intrude, even though they might be—she shuddered—
, which they tended to do with revolting frequency.

She braced herself and knocked on the door. When there was no reply she knocked again, and then gingerly tried the handle. The door opened onto an empty room. No luggage. No personal clutter on the washstand or dresser.

As if they'd gone.

She blinked a couple of times and shook her head. This must all be part of the same nightmare. That was it. In a minute she'd wake up, back in... Back in...

She pinched her arm—hard.

But nothing changed. She was still standing on the landing at the top of an inn, in a little town whose name she couldn't remember. After waking up in bed with a naked man.

It couldn't be happening.

Her aunt and her new husband must be downstairs. Paying the bill. That was it. They couldn't have abandoned her. They just

Her heart fluttering like a butterfly trapped in a jam jar, she turned away from the empty room and ran down the stairs.

Chapter Two

e run a respectable establishment,' said the landlady, glaring at Gregory as she folded her arms over her ample bosom.

‘Really?' If this was what passed for a ‘respectable' establishment, he hated to think what she considered
respectable. He gave himself a mental shake. Why couldn't he think of the word for the opposite of respectable?

‘So we'd be obliged if you'd pay your shot and leave.'

‘I haven't had my breakfast.'

‘Nor will we be serving you any. We don't hold with putting our guests through the kind of scene you caused this morning.'

‘I didn't cause any kind of scene.'

Why was he bandying words with this woman? He never bandied words with
. People did as they were told or felt the force of his displeasure.

‘Well, that's not what my Albert told me,' said the landlady. ‘Came to me with tales of guests complaining they'd been woken up by screaming women in the halls, naked girls in rooms where they didn't ought to be, and—'

He held up one imperious hand for silence. Very well, he conceded there
been a scene. In which he'd become embroiled. Now that he came to think of it, did he really want to break his fast here? The last meal he'd eaten under this roof, although palatable, had ended with him sinking into a state of oblivion so profound it appeared a band of criminals had attempted to perpetrate some kind of...of crime against him.

Dammit, he'd thought his mind was getting clearer. He'd managed to summon up words like palatable and perpetrate. Why, for heaven's sake, had he been unable to come up with another word for crime?

It felt as though someone had broken into his head and stolen three-quarters of his brain. When he'd first awoken he'd likened it to the kind of haze that followed a night of heavy drinking. A state he disliked so much he'd only very rarely sought the form of release that alcohol promised. And then only when he'd been young enough to know no better.

And the landlady was still standing there, hands on her hips now, glaring past him at the state of his room as though expecting to see the naked girl he'd ejected the moment she'd put on her clothes. That sounded wrong. As though he'd only tolerated her in his room while she was naked. What he'd meant was that of course he wouldn't have thrown her out until she was dressed. That would not have been a decent thing to do.

While he was standing there, wondering why his thoughts were in such a muddle when he was used to making incisive decisions about complex issues in the blink of an eye, the landlady's eyes narrowed and her nostrils flared. He followed the direction of her fixed stare to see what had put that disgusted expression on her face. And spied a stocking. A lady's stocking. Dangling from the mirror over the washstand. Looking for all the world as though it had been thrown there during an explosion of frenzied undressing.

He stalked across the room, wrenched it from the mirror and shoved it into his pocket, feeling...cheated. If he really had torn that girl's clothing from her in a burst of passion so overwhelming he'd thrown her stockings clear across the room, then he ought to be able to remember it. Remember being so out of control that he'd not only scattered her clothing all over the room but his own, too.

He shivered in distaste at the recollection that his shirt had spent its night on the floor. A floor that was none too clean.

‘I will be down directly,' he said, coming to a sudden decision to shake the dust of this place from his shoes. As he'd had to shake the dust from his shirt a short while ago.

The landlady gave him one last basilisk stare before very pointedly stepping over the stays that lay on the floor by the door through which she exited.

He strode to the door and slammed it shut after her. Picked up the stays. Glared at them. Wondered for a moment why he felt such reluctance to leave them lying exactly where they were.

Because he didn't want any trace of himself, or whatever had happened here, lingering after he'd gone, he decided. Which was why he thrust them into the one meagre little valise he'd brought with him. Then he went to the washstand and rolled up his shaving kit, tossed it into the valise with the stays and the rest of his things.

Not that the stays were his.

And who was likely to look in his valise and imply that they were?

Nobody—that was who. Not once he'd returned to where he belonged. Which he planned to do as soon as possible.

He paid his bill downstairs at the bar, rather than calling for the landlord to come and attend to him. The sooner he'd done with this place, the better. He needed to get outside and breathe fresh air. Perhaps even find a pump under which to douse his head with cold water. He certainly needed something to clear his head.

Instead of calling for someone to bring his gig round to the front of the inn, he decided to go and fetch it himself. Because there was bound to be a pump in the yard at the back. Or at least a trough for the horses.

He had to pause on the threshold when the spring sunshine assaulted his eyes. It seemed incredibly bright after the darkness of the inn.

When his eyes adjusted to the daylight he saw that there was indeed a pump in the stable yard. And that next to it were two people. One was an ostler. The other was the girl. The girl from the night before—or rather this morning. Heaven alone knew what had happened the night before.

She was inching backwards, round the pump. While the greasy-haired ostler was stalking her. Leering at her.

He frowned. Surely if she was plying her trade at this inn she ought not to be taking evasive action. Or looking so scared. She should be smiling coyly, attempting to wheedle as high a price from the ostler as he could afford to pay.

Come to think of it, she shouldn't have clutched the sheets to her chest, or dressed so hurriedly, or scrabbled at the door in what had looked like desperation to get away from him earlier, either.

‘Hi, there. You! Ostler!'

The ostler suspended his pursuit of the girl. Recognising him as a customer, he pushed his hat to the back of his head with a grubby forefinger and shambled over.

‘Leave that girl alone,' Gregory found himself saying. When what he'd meant to say was,
Harness up my gig

The ostler gave him a look that was very much like a sneer. ‘Want to keep 'er to yerself, do yer?'

The girl was looking round the yard wildly, as though for a means of escape. The only way out of the yard was through an archway. To reach it she'd have to get past both him and the lecherous ostler.

‘That is none of your business,' he replied. ‘I want my gig. And I want it now.'

‘Oh-ar,' said the ostler, apparently remembering what his job here actually was. He shot the girl a look that made her shudder as he went past her and into the stable.

Once the ostler had gone into the stable Gregory turned to look at the girl. She was pressed up against the far wall of the stable yard, as though trying to disappear into the plaster.

It didn't make sense. Well, nothing about this morning made sense. But the girl's behaviour, above all, was perplexing.

He didn't like it. He didn't like not being in complete control of any situation. He didn't like the feeling of stumbling about in the dark.

He'd thought all he wanted to do was get away from this inn and back to normality. But the mystery of this girl, and how she'd come to be in his bed when she clearly wasn't a professional, was plaguing him.

He'd never be at rest until he knew what had really happened here last night. He wanted answers. And the girl would have those answers.

He stalked towards her. And as he did so she pressed even deeper into the plasterwork, her eyes widening with alarm. He supposed she must fear the consequences of having perpetrated—ah, there was that word again—whatever deception it was she'd attempted last night. As well she might. When she'd attempted to perpetrate whatever it was she'd been attempting to perpetrate she'd picked the wrong man.

He came to a halt a scant foot from her, wondering how best to make her abandon any loyalty she might feel towards her accomplices and put her faith in him, instead. Only then would she tell him what he wanted to know. Which was how the deuce had they managed to penetrate his disguise and what would be their next move?

The answer came to him when the ostler led his gig out of the stable, giving the girl a knowing, triumphant grin as he hitched the reins to a ring in the wall. If she wasn't a whore yet she would be one by tonight, that look said. Willing or unwilling.

His whole being rejected the notion of abandoning any woman to such a fate. No matter what she'd tried to do to him.

Besides, he had his reputation to think of. Somehow the screeching woman with the bony fingers must have worked out who he was.

Or been informed.

Ah, yes, that would explain everything. Even the confusion and panic on the girl's face. It would be just like Hugo to drag some unsuspecting third party into one of his pranks and leave them to pay the price.

And the devil of it was that Hugo knew
would do his utmost to hush it all up. That he would never let the family name be dragged through the mud.

‘Once I have left this inn yard in that gig...' he pointed it out to the quaking girl ‘ will be completely at that man's mercy.'

Her eyes flicked wildly from the gig to the ostler, who was ambling in their direction, and to him. Only once she was looking at him did he continue.

‘You would do better to come with me. I will keep you safe.'

She didn't look as though she believed him. Her inference that he might not be telling the truth was an insult so grave she might as well have spat at him.

Drawing himself to his full height, he bit out, ‘I give you my word.'

Something about his demeanour, or maybe the approach of the ostler, must finally have managed to convince her, because she nodded her head before shooting past him and clambering up into the gig.

The ostler's face fell. And
actually did spit. At the pair of them as they swept past him and out into what passed for the high street in this scruffy little town.

The girl had wrapped her arms around herself in a protective gesture the moment he'd climbed into the driver's seat. And he was so angry with her that for a while he didn't bother to reassure her that she really was safe with him. How dared she insinuate that he was the kind of man who told lies?

Though, to be fair, these last few days he
been somewhat economical with the truth.

But never—not under any circumstances—would he harm a helpless woman. Not even an
helpless woman. Oh, blast it all. There went his vocabulary again. There was no such word as unhelpless, was there?

The approach of a farm cart from the opposite direction caused him to abandon his vain attempt to find a suitable word to describe the girl sitting next to him. He needed all his concentration to get his vehicle past the cart in the narrow confines of the lane. Particularly since the farmer's horse appeared to annoy the one harnessed to his own gig. What with preventing his bad-tempered nag from biting the gentle, rather stupid mare belonging to the farmer, and convincing it that it really
need to progress further down the lane, even though it looked as if it would be better sport to make the farmer's horse back his cart into the wall, he had his hands—and his mind—completely full.

They were right out in the countryside, with the little town of Much Wapping far behind them, before he decided to speak to the girl again.

He found he was looking forward to coaxing her into speaking. The only word that had so far passed her lips had been huskily spoken. Like a velvet caress.

Velvet caress?
Good grief, what was the matter with him that he was coming up with such bizarre ideas?

Anyway, he shouldn't have to coax her into speaking again. Females, in his experience, were never silent. Not for as long as this anyway. Not unless they were planning something. He gave her a sharp look. She still had her arms wrapped around her middle. Her fingers tucked under her armpits. It struck him that she didn't look merely defensive any longer. She looked cold.

she was cold. She wasn't wearing a coat. Or a bonnet. Her rust-coloured gown was made of good quality kerseymere, but a brief glance at her feet revealed an expanse of bare skin between the tops of her sturdy shoes and the hem of that gown. And it might be sunny, but this early in the year it wouldn't be really warm until perhaps the middle of the afternoon. If then. She needed to put something else on. But she hadn't any luggage, had she?

Frowning, he cast his mind over what to do for her. It would be pointless to offer her the one stocking he had in his jacket pocket. She needed more than one stocking. She needed a coat.

He could lend her his own coat... But, no. It would swamp her. Even his jacket would probably come down to her knees. Though that, actually, might not be such a bad thing. She could tuck her hands inside the sleeves.

He couldn't just stop where they were and offer her his jacket, though. The lane was so narrow that if any other vehicle came from either direction they wouldn't be able to pass. But from now on he'd look for a place where he could safely pull over.

Before very much longer he spied a gate leading into a field, which gave him the chance to pull the gig off the road a little. He put on the brake, removed his gloves and swiftly unbuttoned his coat.

Just as he was leaning forward, with his left arm out of one sleeve, about to remove his right arm from the other, the girl gave him a hefty shove in the side. She caught him so off balance that he tumbled right out of the seat, landing between the gig's nearside wheel and the gatepost.