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The Royal Conquest(8)

By:Stacy Reid



The aroma of berries wafted on a gentle breeze to his nose, and he prevented himself from inhaling her scent further. She was already afraid of him. Her eyes flicked across the room in a quick assessment, and he noted her lingering gaze on the iron poker by the roaring fire. She heard his low chuckle, for she looked back to him, a cool expression hiding the fear she had flinched with earlier.

She was no wilting miss. He saw the defiant courage and was impressed. Many young ladies would have been beyond hysteria by now, liberally indulging in swooning fits and the vapors, considering he was not successfully hiding the lust slicing at his self-control.

The silence lingering between them, as he lifted the heavy mass of her hair to blot the final wetness from it, was tense. How could he put her at ease? First he had to rein in the blasted hunger twisting in his gut. He had more control of his passions than he was currently displaying.

She sneezed into the blanket, three times in quick succession.

There was no kitchen or parlor or a hearth for cooking. He vaguely remembered playing games in his youth here with Sebastian and Anthony when they had wanted to escape the main house. “We may have stumbled upon the cottage in which the Calydon children played.”

“I think you are right.”

Though she sounded relieved he had started a discourse, she was ramrod stiff in the chair.

“Your hair will not fully dry, however, most of the wetness is dealt with. I’m regretful to say I see no teapot or any liquor to help you with the chill.”

She graced him with a wobbly smile. “We will simply make do with our sparse accommodations. It was fortuitous you found the cottage when it was needed. The horse I rode, he is your stallion?”

He hesitated. “Yes, I trained him as a gift to Calydon.”

“He is a magnificent animal. I pray he will return safely to the stables.”

“Sage will be fine,” Mikhail reassured. “He is well trained.”

“That is what you do, train horses?”

“In a manner of speaking.”

Her gaze narrowed. It was hard to not miss the intelligence and curiosity lurking in her gaze. “You train horses, or you do not, there is no ‘in a manner of’ about it.”

“It is one of the things I do.” Mikhail was careful to keep the amusement from his tone. He could imagine what it would be like if he revealed himself to be a prince. Miss Peppiwell would probably start to scream, if only to bring attention to their location to ensure she entrapped him for marriage. Not that he was foolishly tempted to reveal his identity.

He’d sought his cousin’s estate to get away from the oppressive weight of society’s expectations, and the fact that he would soon be immersing himself in England’s haute monde, a place he had not entered since Madam Anya’s perfidy. He’d had enough vile rumors to deflect in his own homeland and had shunned the haute monde whenever he visited England, but now Mikhail had little choice. Everyone was expecting to meet the new Duke of Avondale.

They would simply have to wait. He’d lived with depraved scandal for years and had just escaped another. The realization that, if he were not careful now, Mikhail could land himself back in the dark mire of vicious rumors and unending ignominy, set his teeth on edge.

Hell. It had been an unpleasant shock to find Sherring Cross bursting at the seams with the very guests he had wanted to avoid until it became absolutely necessary. Lady Calydon was hosting a small, intimate house party, which unfortunately coincided with Mikhail’s arrival. He craved a few months of peace without the trappings of society, and he was not about to compromise it because of Miss Peppiwell’s unease, but he would do everything possible to make her relax.

A sigh escaped her, drawing his attention to her lovely face.

“And what else do you do?”

“I sometimes advise others on estate matters,” he answered vaguely.

A quick frown flashed across her face. “I see. Like a financial advisor?”

“Yes.”

She pushed strands of wet hair off her cheeks. “And you provide this service for the Duke of Calydon?” Her shoulders had relaxed a bit, but her eyes still glowed with wariness.

“I have advised him on several estate and financial matters over the years.”

Her direct stare was unwavering. “And you also do this for other lords?”

Mikhail thought of his father, brothers, and other cousins. Even the recently crowned Tsarevich Alexander had solicited Mikhail’s expertise because of his acumen with money.

“Yes.”

“And were you invited to Lady Calydon’s house party?” Miss Peppiwell’s voice trembled, but her eyes were challenging.

“No, my presence at Sherring Cross is a happy coincidence.” He doubted he hid the inflection of sarcasm from his tone, but she nodded, seeming satisfied.

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