Loves Bridge, May 1817
Nathaniel, Marquess of Haywood, strode across the road from Cupid’s Inn, arguing with himself.
Slow down. You don’t want to attract attention. You can’t burst into the vicarage in a panic. Think how angry Marcus would be.
He stopped and took a deep breath. This was Loves Bridge, not London, and Miss Hutting, the woman he feared wished to trap his cousin into marriage, was a vicar’s daughter, not a conniving Society chit.
And Marcus had told him she wanted to be the next Spinster House spinster, not the next Duchess of Hart.
But she spent hours alone with Marcus the other day, including some time in the Spinster House. Think what could have happened there!
Nate clenched his teeth and started walking again.
He should have been more suspicious when Marcus accepted this dinner invitation. A sane man wouldn’t voluntarily sit down to a meal with a vicar, his wife, and their countless children. He’d let his guard down, that was it. Loves Bridge was the curse’s birthplace, so he’d thought the villagers would realize the Duke of Hart had to avoid marriage at all costs. Once the duke said his vows and bedded his wife, the poor man started counting the months left him on this earth. For two hundred years, no Duke of Hart had lived to see his heir born.
I am not going to let that happen to Marcus. I have to remain alert, especially now that Marcus is thirty.
Just look what had happened when he’d let his attention wander in London a few days ago: Marcus had ended up in the bushes with that Rathbone hussy, her dress falling down for all to see.
Hell, Lady Dunlee, London’s leading gossip, had seen.
Marcus wouldn’t end up in the bushes at the vicarage, of course, but that didn’t mean—
“Good evening, Lord Haywood.”
“Ah!” Nate took several quick steps back. Oh, Lord, talk about not remaining alert.
Two old ladies with white hair and bright, prying eyes blinked up at him. They must be the Boltwood sisters, the leading gossips of this little village. What wretched luck.
He forced his lips into a smile and bowed slightly. “Good evening, ladies.”
“Looking for some company, my lord?” The shorter of the two batted her eyelashes at him.
Nate repressed a shudder. “No. My thoughts are company enough, madam.”
The other old woman clicked her tongue. “A handsome young lord like you alone with your thoughts? That will never do.”
Her sister nodded and then waggled her thin white eyebrows suggestively. “We happened to see Miss Davenport loitering around the Spinster House.”
“She was looking quite lonely.”
A very inappropriate part of him stirred.
Miss Davenport had arrived at the inn the other day just as he and his friend Alex, the Earl of Evans, were coming to have a pint and wait for Marcus to finish posting the Spinster House vacancy notices—accompanied by Miss Hutting. Later, Marcus had told them Miss Davenport was also hoping to become the next Spinster House spinster.
Unbelievable! She should have men lining up to beg for her hand in marriage. That day at the inn, the sun had touched her smooth honey-blond hair, making it glow. He’d gazed down into her blue eyes as he’d opened the door for her and felt himself being pulled deeper and deeper. . . .
He frowned. He’d seen dark currents swirling below her polite expression and had a sudden, bizarre urge to ask what was troubling her. Thank God Alex had spoken then. She’d looked away, and the odd connection he’d felt with her had broken.
And it would stay broken. He was not in the market for a wife. Of course not. Not only did he have to guard Marcus for as long as he could, he was only thirty, too—far too young to consider marriage.
His father had been past forty when Nate had been born.
Oh, blast. Now the Misses Boltwood were snickering and nudging each other.
He sniffed in his haughtiest manner and looked down his nose at them. “I am quite certain Miss Davenport would not welcome my intrusion into her solitude, ladies.”
Though the thought of Miss Davenport a spinster—
No. The woman’s matrimonial plans—or lack thereof— were none of his concern.
“That Spinster House!” The shorter of the Misses Boltwood curled her lip and snorted. “I can’t imagine what Isabelle Dorring was thinking. Spinsterhood is an unnatural state.”
The other Miss Boltwood nodded. “A woman needs a man to protect her and give her children.”
Her sister elbowed her, waggling her eyebrows again. “And keep her warm at night.”
Since both ladies looked to have reached their sixth or seventh decade without nabbing a husband themselves, their enthusiasm for the activities of the marriage bed was more than a little alarming.
“As you must know,” Nate said, “Miss Dorring had good reason to distrust men. It’s not surprising she would wish to offer other women a way to live comfortably without a husband.”
The taller Miss Boltwood shrugged and flicked her fingers at him. “Bah. From all accounts, Isabelle knew what she was about. Her mistake was letting the duke into her bed before she’d got him to the altar.”
“Though you must admit, Gertrude, that if that duke looked anything like this duke, poor Isabelle can be forgiven for getting her priorities confused.” The shorter Miss Boltwood’s lips curved in what could only be considered a lascivious fashion. “Have you seen the man’s calves? His shoulders?”
These elderly ladies can’t be lusting after Marcus.
The thought was too horrifying to contemplate.
“I’m not blind, am I, Cordelia? And what about his—”
“I’m afraid I must continue on my way, ladies.” It might be rude to interrupt them, but it was necessary. Some things could never be unheard.
“Oh, yes, of course.” Miss Gertrude winked. “Here we are, keeping you cooling your heels when you must be anxious to meet Miss Davenport.”
“I am not meeting Miss Davenport.”
No! Where the hell had that thought come from? There was nothing unfortunate about it. He had no time for nor interest in a marriageable woman.
“You aren’t the duke, my lord,” Miss Cordelia said. “You don’t have to worry about the silly curse.”
Miss Gertrude nodded. “And Miss Davenport is a comely armful in need of a husband.”
Very comely . . .
He must get these wayward thoughts under control. Miss Davenport might be the most beautiful woman in the world, but she was not for him.
“I doubt if Miss Davenport would agree she’s in need of a husband.” He bowed again. “If you will excuse me?”
He didn’t wait for their permission. He wanted to get out of earshot as quickly as possible.
He wasn’t quick enough.
“The marquess has an impressive set of shoulders, too, Gertrude.”
“Yes, indeed. Miss Davenport is a very lucky woman.”
He resisted the urge to turn and shout back at them that he had no interest in Miss Davenport.
Which would be a lie.
But he could have no interest in the woman. What he had—must have—was an immediate interest in Marcus’s safety.
No. Slow down. Don’t be obvious. Marcus hates it when he knows I’m spying on him.
And he wasn’t spying, precisely. He was merely keeping a watchful eye out.
He strolled toward the vicarage, which just happened to be directly across from the Spinster House. Was Miss Davenport still there? He didn’t wish to encourage any gossip, but surely it wouldn’t be remarkable to engage the woman in conversation if he encountered her. Actually, it would be an excellent thing to do. That way, he could watch for Marcus without being obvious about it.
Splendid. Miss Davenport was still there, dressed in a blue gown that he’d wager was the same shade as her eyes. A matching blue bonnet covered her lovely blond hair. She was slender, though not too slender, and just the right height. If he held her in his arms, her head would come up to his—
Bloody hell! I’m not holding the girl in my arms.
He jerked his eyes away from her—an action that was far harder than it should have been—to look toward the vicarage. What luck! Marcus was just leaving. Miss Hutting was with him, but in a moment the girl would—
He stopped and blinked to clear his vision. No, his eyes had not deceived him. Miss Hutting had just pulled Marcus into a concealing clump of bushes.
Hadn’t Marcus learned anything from the disaster with Miss Rathbone?
It was the blasted curse. Marcus wouldn’t do anything so cabbage-headed if he was in his right mind.
But what can I do to save him? I can’t “accidently” barge into those bushes.
He glanced back at Miss Davenport. Oh hell, she was staring, too. If she told anyone what she saw—
His blood ran cold. If those gossipy Boltwood sisters got wind of this, Marcus would be hard-pressed to avoid parson’s mousetrap, particularly as Miss Hutting’s father was the parson.
Well, this was something he could attend to. He’d have a word with Miss Davenport. Surely he could persuade her to keep mum.