Four Dukes And a Devil
ISBN 10: 0061787361
ISBN 13: 978-0061787362
featuring Sophia's novella: "Catch of the Century"
An Avon anthology featuring novellas by Sophia Nash,Cathy Maxwell, Tracy Anne Warren, Elaine Fox, andJeaniene Frost! Three historical dukes, one contemporary duke, and one paranormal devil will be individually featured in this exciting new anthology to be released June 30, 2009.
Catch of the Century
In Sophia’s novella, the most eligible gentleman in London’s marriage mart reluctantly rescues a stranded school mistress. When the duke is forced to go heart-to-heart with the spirited siren, (Victoria Givan from Love With the Perfect Scoundrel), the well-documented Catch of the Century finds out she’s the only one he can’t have.
EXCERPT . . .
Victoria Givan would rather be alone and plump with coin in a London rookery than walking beside the colorful profusion of flowers here in the dales of Northampton. Indeed, the end would come all the quicker in the former scenario.
Lord, how she loathed the countryside. A casual observer would never guess that the turmoil of worries tumbling through her mind this fine spring day rivaled the stories to be found in the sole possession Victoria carried—a book of Canterbury Tales.
This was her last thought before the shrill blast of a carriage horn interrupted all. “Take heed. Make way!” A driver’s voice rang out from one of the three regal coaches barreling down the turnpike.
For the fifth time that hour, Victoria hurried her three young charges to the edge of the road to avoid being trampled. Spirited horses shook their heads and polished brass and metal traces jangled in the air as the lead team jigged closer in a spanking pace. At the last moment, the first carriage swerved toward them, and Victoria spied the silhouette of a masculine profile beyond the gilt-edged window. The rear wheel passed perilously close to her boots and a flag of wind whipped over her as she stumbled back.
The trio of adolescent boys reached to steady her and murmured words of concern. She coughed and sputtered amid the clouds of dust kicked up by the departing entourage. What sort of uncaring person had the audacity to nearly run them down without even a—
There was a shout and the impressive set of equipages came to a dead halt a hundred yards away, before she could catch her breath and quell her frustration.
A stylishly liveried driver from the lead carriage jumped down and opened the highly lacquered door.
“Wait here,” she admonished the boys. She strode forward a few paces and then stopped—her legs shaky, her composure even more so.
A tall, daunting gentleman unfolded his frame from the polished carriage, his gloves and hat fisted in one large hand. It was obvious even at this distance that he was as dashing in his elegant clothes as she was uncommonly shabby in her faded gray gown. His long, loose strides ate up the distance between them and suddenly, he was right in front of her, his gold quizzing glass gleaming as it lay amid the starched shirt linen between the lapels of an austere dark blue superfine coat.
He ran his fingers through his dark hair and replaced his lustrous brushed-beaver hat before he finally glanced down at her. His brows drew together.
Victoria’s breath caught in her throat. Good Lord. His eyes were the most arresting shade of pure blue—deep and devastating. They spoke of seduction even in this overly sunny, flower-filled florist’s fantasy of countryside buzzing with all manner of perverse insects.
Not that she knew the smallest particle about seduction. The closest thing to temptation unleashed had been her introduction to chocolate several months ago courtesy of her benefactor the Countess of Sheffield.
He perused her form in a slow, unsettling fashion, appraising her from the top of her sensible and very old chipped straw hat down to the toes of her very new and very fashionable calf skin half boots, courtesy of another good friend.
“Well?” she asked, collecting her wits in the face of such magnificent masculinity. From the expression decorating his extraordinary face, it occurred to her that he had probably rarely been brought to heel for anything in his life.
“I should like to apologize for the ill example of driving my heretofore excellent coachman just exhibited, madam.”
“I’ve seen drunken sailors after a decade out to sea show more care behind a team.”
He pursed his lips for the barest moment and Victoria was uncertain if it was in annoyance or in humor. “You’ve the right of it, madam. Shall I have Mr. Crandall keelhauled at the next port, or shall I have him tied to the nearest tree so you can lash him, yourself, straight away?”
“My thoughts exactly.”
He undoubtedly agreed with her only to deflate her. But she refused to retire her displeasure. The day had been far too awful and this was the proverbial last straw. “It’s easy to accept guilt when it falls on another’s shoulders and not your own.”
“Quite right. That’s just what I told Mr. Crandall when he tried to blame the poor pheasant running across the road just past your party. Shall I dismiss him without reference?”
“Of course not!” She nearly shouted in frustration.
“Or perhaps you’d prefer me to go after the bird?”
She ground her teeth together.
“Well, then, since you clearly possess the heart of a saint—” she would swear the corner of his lips twitched just the barest bit “—the matter is settled. I’m so glad you escaped injury, madam. Good day to you. I do apologize again for any inconvenience.” He bowed and began to turn away.
It was her muttering which probably stopped him in his tracks. “Did you have something further to say?”
That habit had always got her into trouble in her youth. There was no excuse for it really. “Nothing, nothing whatsoever.”
“Are you in need of aid? Perhaps a bit of compensation is in order for all the trouble?” She could sense rather than see the wariness in his eyes as he fished in his darkly patterned waistcoat and produced a gold guinea.
She gripped her beloved book to stop herself from taking the much needed coin. “Absolutely not.” Her voice sounded tense and high-pitched to her own ears. “I don’t need money and I certainly would never accept it from you if I did.”
“Are you sure? You would be doing me a favor, really—easing my conscience.” His blue eyes appeared even more vivid as he finally displayed a dazzling smile, which only served to irritate her further since it caused the most annoying fluttering in her stomach. It must be hunger.
She tried to shrug off the importance of his offer—and wavered. Pride lanced need. “No, thank you.”
He raised the handsome quizzing glass to his eye and stared at her.
She felt rather like a moth under a magnifying glass. A dusty one. She had never been good at hiding her emotions. And today was obviously no different.
“Here, take it,” he said quietly as he advanced the coin and lowered his eyepiece.
The man hadn’t even condescended to ask her name. Only her tacit forgiveness had been required, and a guinea offered to enable him to forget her all the faster. But then, on the playing fields of the rich and titled, mere mortals of the working class did not require names. She should know that much by now. She turned on her heel to see to the boys. “Good day to you, sir,” she tossed over her shoulder.
Christ, the dark auburn-haired siren had robbed him of his iron-like grip on his wits. Who would have guessed snapping, green-eyed beauties could be found scampering about the back of beyond in intriguing, fashionable little boots and a hideous gown barely fit for the ragman? This species of female did not exist in town. It bore further inspection.
He easily caught up to her as she reached the trio of boys who silently gazed at her with complete adoration in their eyes.
Apparently, her charms worked equally well on the younger members of his sex.
She turned around again, her vivacious eyes spearing him. They were the color of spring. Of life. They were the eyes of some mysterious stubborn female tribe—one he’d heard tell of but never encountered. All the ladies he met were well-mannered, exceedingly accommodating, and possessed of a certain fondness for riches. His riches. But facing him now was an outspoken hellcat, bent on countering his every word despite her station. She was also the worst liar he had ever seen. She was altogether quite refreshing in an exceptionally impolite fashion.
“Madam, my manners have gone completely begging. Would you be so kind as to favor me with your name?”
“Another favor? I rather think you’ve used up your allotment today, sir. Everyone knows too many favors breeds complacency, which only leads to dissolute behavior. I won’t have the ruination of your character on my conscience.”
John Varick, the newly minted ninth Duke of Beaufort, nearly shouted with laughter. He couldn’t stop himself from again going after her when she herded the boys past him. They followed her despite their evident desire to gawk further at his carriages. The smallest boy was lagging, and looking parched.
He said to her back, “I beg your pardon, ma’am. Look, I know we got off on the wrong foot, but it’s apparent one of your charges is ailing. May I offer all of you some refreshment? Water at the very least? You know, it wouldn’t be any trouble a’tall to escort you to your home.”
She stopped in her tracks and her shoulders slumped forward for the briefest instant before she arched her back again. Only the crickets could be heard, and a horse pawing the ground. Without turning to face him, she said softly, “All right.”
He took a deep breath and came ’round the little group. He bowed properly. “John Varick—your servant. May I ask who I will have the pleasure of escorting?”
She lifted her chin. “May I present Gabriel, Matthew and Peter? Masters Towland, Smithson, and Linley.” Each boy ducked his head at the mention of their name. The last and littlest looked at him reverently.
“And the name of the,” he paused, “lady escorting this troop of apostles?”
“Victoria Givan.” Her voice was lyrical and soft when she allowed her ire to cool.
He waved to the driver near the horses. “Mr. Crandall, please arrange space for Master Towland and Smithson in the other carriages. I shall take up Master Linley and Mrs. Givan.”
“Miss Givan,” she corrected.
John Varick knew well how to hide from the world the humor he felt tickling his mind. He stole another glimpse of her pretty boots.
Soon enough the boys were settled and he offered his arm to hand Miss Givan into the carriage. “And where shall I direct the driver? To the Pickworth estate down the road, or perhaps somewhere else in the neighborhood?” Surely she was a governess out taking the air with her charges, although that did not explain the impractical elegant boots.
She settled on the bench beside the young boy he had carefully chosen as their chaperon, and rested the large book on her knees. As he ducked inside to join them, she lowered her mossy eyes. “It’s a bit farther down the road, Mr. Varick. We’re on our way to Derbyshire actually. Wallace Abbey to be precise.”
He nearly missed the last step. The forward motion propelled him into the seat across from her and the boy. “Wallace Abbey? Why that’s sixty miles from here.” He should have known better than to have been lured by an unusual face.
His amused driver of the last decade and a half cracked a rare smile upon hearing her direction and shut the carriage door, leaving no escape. There had been quite a dry spell since Crandall had last won a round in their association.
“Really? Sixty miles?” she said, lifting her small pointed chin, “I hadn’t known it was quite so far.”
“Miss Givan, were you planning on walking the entire way?”
“Of course not.” Her mien, voice, and eyes violated all ten rules of honesty.
The carriage moved forward, picking up the pace a few moments later. A long silence ensued during which John poured a glass of water for the boy, who downed it eagerly. Her hand wavered a bit as she accepted another glass from him. “Miss Givan, dare I mention that Wallace Abbey burnt to the ground over two decades ago? You weren’t planning on spending the night there on your, ahem, pilgrimage?”
“I’m well aware of that. I’m escorting the boys to Derbyshire to take up their new positions there as apprentices for the architect Mr. John Nash. Perhaps you know of him? He’s quite famous.”
“Wallace Abbey is to be rebuilt and will serve as an extension of the foundling home where I’m employed in town. I’ve promised to settle the boys in a refurbished cottage near the abbey and to hire several servants for Mr. Nash’s colleagues who will oversee the boys and the rebuilding.”
“I see.” He removed his hat, turned it upside down and slipped it between the parallel leather straps running the length of the carriage’s high ceiling. He debated how far he would be willing to accompany the pretty woman and her charges. It would be simpler, nay, more prudent, to arrange passage for them on the next mail coach. “Are you ever going to tell me how you came to be walking on this road—so far from London?”
Victoria Givan, orphan, teacher, and all ’round manager of dozens of little-men-in-training concentrated on steadying her breathing. All it had taken was a glance at the golden Babove the famous royal crest on the carriage’s outside door to confirm her mounting suspicions. How on earth was she to think properly with the freshly anointed Duke of Beaufort sitting across from her?
Every morning and afternoon his moniker blazed from all of the newspapers—The Catch of the Century. Sometimes every letter was capitalized if the columnist was especially overawed. His story was oft repeated; as a young man he had taken his modest maternal inheritance and formed a seemingly never-ending string of brilliant foreign schemes and investments leading to a fortune that rivaled the royal families of Europe. And all this before it became apparent that he would, indeed, succeed to the illustrious title since the former duke, his uncle, had never sired a son.
And he was ridiculously handsome—a man in his prime. His eyes were said to have caused a multitude of ladies to swoon dead away in his presence. Silly schoolgirls composed poems about his dazzling smile and his even more dazzling riches. Victoria sighed.
His ability to withstand the onslaught of ambitious ladies flung at him by their determined relations over the last decade or more was one of the most popular topics under the swaged edges of the Fashionable World columns. Why, his every movement and his every word were recorded in biblical proportions. And the gossip had reached its zenith this past month when the former Duke of Beaufort had died unexpectedly, investing the man before her with the title he wore so elegantly.
He began to tap the side of his well-muscled thigh in exasperation while waiting for her answer. What had he asked her? More importantly, how was she to humor this gentleman into taking them all the way to Derbyshire? There was nothing except common decency to prevent him from leaving them at the next sign post. His Grace did not look the sort who suffered fools lightly. And Victoria felt little more than a fool after today’s events.
She stopped biting her bottom lip when he raised his quizzing glass to his eye again, evidently to intimidate her into an answer.
“Do you need spectacles, Mr. Varick? Peter would be happy to lend you his, won’t you dearest?” The boy nodded and produced his small pair straight away.
He lowered his quizzing glass. “I do not require spectacles.”
“It’s entirely understandable, you know. Failing sight is a common ailment among many gentlemen of your advanced years, and—”
“Advanced years?” he said, one corner of his mouth curling the merest bit.
“Why, yes. Ah, please forgive me, I should never have suggested you are . . .”
“What, Miss Givan?”
“Well, I do have the greatest respect for the wisdom one acquires with gray hair and all.”
“Gray hair? I do not—” he sat up straighter and blinked “—Miss Givan, I’m not in the habit of enduring people who evade questions. I applaud you for getting this far. Now, will you favor me with your certain-to-be-woeful tale instead of these tedious observations of yours, or not?”
Young Peter Linley’s head had been swiveling back and forth in an effort to keep up with the conversation. “I’ll tell you, sir.”
The duke fastened his penetrating gaze on the boy. “I knew I could count on you, Peter. Men must stick together. Spill it.”
“Well, it was like this. Me and Gabe and Matthew—”
“Gabriel, Matthew, and I,” Victoria instinctively corrected. “Really, this is the most tiresome story.”
He ignored her. “Go on, Peter.”
“Right,” the boy said. “We were at the last inn. The one in Quesbury. Do you know it, sir?”
“You see, Miss Givan was haggling with the innkeeper because he was askin’ too much for the bread and cheese, and then the mail coachman’s horn sounded and, well . . .”
“That’s when it got really interesting.”
“Peter . . .” she tried her best ‘I shall make you rue the day’ voice. Lord, make this day end, please.
“Well, another gentleman, actually he didn’t quite look like a gentleman—more like a laborer really since he had lots of dirt on his clothes—anyway, he took up for Miss Givan when the innkeeper winked at her and said she could pay off the debt in another fashion since he fancied red hair. He even pinched her—” Peter darted a glance at her and hurried on “—and the laborer darkened the daylights out of the innkeeper. For some bloomin’ reason that made the rest of the men there join the brawl. We had to crawl out on our hands and knees and had a jolly time of it . . . until we saw the mail coach was gone without us and we had to walk.”
“And all your belongings?”
“Oh, all of Miss Givan’s coins were lost in the brawl, and our belongings are still on the coach, sir. But that’s for the best, Miss Givan said. Easier to walk without havin’ to carry much.” The boy grinned and the duke ruffled his hair.
Victoria tried to laugh. Tried to appear good-humored. In fact, she was an ugly combination of mortified and anxious. She knew she had only one way to get all the boys to Derbyshire safely, and that would involve engaging the bemused interest of the richest man in England for the next sixty miles or so. It was all that separated the boys and her from spending a hungry night or three under the stars, blanketed by a hedgerow. And all manner of insects and wild animals prowling this jungle.
For the first time in her life she felt very much beyond her depth. If she could just make his blue eyes a plain shade of brown, and eliminate, oh, say a few hundred thousand pounds from his staggering wealth then she would feel much more capable of making this paragon of bachelorhood come around to her way of thinking.
She also wished for one day and one night of quiet reflection so she could make a bargain with her maker: to get her out of the detestable countryside in exchange for an end to her ridiculously romantic dreams. It was too bad the angel charged with guarding over her took such delight in sabotaging all her wishes at every opportunity.
AWARDS/REVIEWS . . .
~ROMCOM's Best Novella of the Year