Authors: Janice Maynard
Daisy and the Duke
Ian Furchess, eleventh Duke of Wolffhampton, was feeding pigs. The irony of the situation did not escape him, but in truth, it wasn’t a bad way to spend an unseasonably warm February afternoon. The weather chaps were all atwitter with record highs and warm air masses and the like. Ian chose not to analyze his good fortune. It was enough just to feel the hot sun on the back of his neck and to think about something other than his problems.
An importunate sow brushed up against his leg, smearing mud across the thigh of an ancient pair of pants. Ian chuckled, mostly at himself. Here he was, seventy-third in line for the throne of England, communing with livestock.
He took a certain pride in it, actually. It was his own personal rebellion. Ian had never wanted to be Duke. But when his parents and older brother were killed in a sailing accident the year Ian turned twenty-one, his life had changed forever.
He should have been with them on that boat. Instead, he’d been charging with testosterone-fueled determination across the polo field, leading his university team to a championship. A natural horseman, Ian’s dream had been to take the fortune he’d inherited from his maternal grandfather and establish a world-class stud farm.
Instead, he now bore the sole responsibility for an aging pile of rock, a stubborn and imperious grandmother, and the future of the entire Wolffhampton progeny.
To use an American phrase that would never cross the lips of a proper duke,
Ian’s head snapped up. A trio of soon-to-be-bacon animals scattered.
The woman in the distance drew nearer, her smile sunny. “Can you help me, sir? I’m trying to find the Duke of Wolffhampton. This is his house, right?” She shielded her blue eyes with one hand, brushing away tendrils of blond hair that danced around her face, and glanced up at the imposing lump of granite that Ian called home. Wolffhampton Castle was impressive rather than attractive, but it had served his family well for centuries.
Ian sighed inwardly. “The duke is not available. May I help you?” He’d pegged the young lady right off. Ever since William and Kate married, the countryside had swarmed with single female tourists hoping to snag their own fairy-tale prince. He wondered if they expected to find royalty hiding behind potting sheds.
Her face fell. She hitched her enormous tote higher on her shoulder. “I’m Daisy Wexler. I really need to speak with the duke. It’s a matter of some importance.” Her accent placed her from somewhere in the American South.
Ian’s stomach clenched. “Concerning what?”
The woman was lovely, dressed much like Gatsby’s Daisy, all in white—a flowing linen jumper and a simple cotton shirt beneath. But she had added splashes of color in a strawberry belt and a jaunty daffodil scarf that fluttered in the breeze.
She wrinkled her nose, a small frown appearing between perfectly arched brows. “Perhaps an illegitimate child. But without speaking to the duke I can’t be certain.”
Bloody hell. Ian’s internal radar blared a warning. At the rate his bank account was dwindling, he certainly couldn’t afford to battle an inheritance claim in the courts, even though he already knew what the outcome would be. He and his grandmother, the elderly duchess, were the only surviving members of the once-prolific Wolffhamptons. That was a fact.
As delicious as the adorable Daisy was, Ian was not about to let himself become embroiled in a fabricated claim to the lineage. “The duke is a very busy man. Perhaps if you called for an appointment…”
Daisy’s small chin lifted, adding a hint of stubbornness to her heart-shaped face. “But I
called…repeatedly. No one answers.”
Precisely. Ian had disconnected the answering machine for a reason. “I’m sorry,” he said, wishing he’d met this delectable creature in other circumstances. “You’ve wasted your time.”
Daisy was tired, hungry and cranky. The flight from Charlottesville to Atlanta to Gatwick to Manchester had been interminable. And the subsequent bus ride even more so. The prospect of her first hop across the pond had excited her, but now that she was here, she barely had the energy to be civil. Perhaps she should have built a day into her schedule to recover from the jet lag.
The subject of her current displeasure was well over six feet tall and had the hard, muscular frame of a man in his prime. He was wickedly handsome, with tousled chestnut hair and long-lashed hazel eyes. She couldn’t, however, afford to be distracted, even if his blatant masculinity and clipped speech made her knees wobble.
She almost never made snap decisions about people, but this boorish farm laborer set her teeth on edge. He was being either deliberately obtuse or obstructive—or both.
Drawing on her last ounce of determination, she smiled at him with the cajoling humor that usually stood her in good stead. “Surely you could escort me to the castle…introduce me to His Grace?”
The man narrowed his eyes, suspicion in his gaze. “Common laborers don’t, as a rule, walk up to the front door and let themselves in.”
“Then perhaps we could access the house unobtrusively somewhere else. All I need to see, at least at first, is the library. And I won’t say you helped me. As a matter of fact, I don’t even know your name, do I? Plausible deniability will work in our favor.”
“You Americans are so pushy.”
She felt her cheeks flush. The man spoke in educated accents. But he was dressed in threadbare tobacco-colored trousers and a weathered leather bomber jacket that looked as if it might have actually been worn during a world war.
Perhaps his family hadn’t had the means to send him to university. It was a shame, because he had a natural air of command that would have carried him far in business. It was possible he was an overseer for the duke, in charge of the property. But that still didn’t explain why he was mucking about in a hog pen.
She refused to let his comment dissuade her from her quest. “I like to think of it as being goal-oriented. Or are you a chauvinist who believes women belong in the bedroom and the kitchen, and nowhere near the boardroom?”
“I’m sure you could handle all three.” His voice was smooth as whiskey, and he smiled for the first time as he spoke, a quick, flashing grin that stole her breath. The men Daisy usually dated were intellectuals, professors and the like. She had never been attracted to the earthy, works-with-his-hands type. Until today.
But she wasn’t here for a holiday fling. Reaching into her purse, she extracted a twenty-pound note. “I’m running out of time. Are you above being bribed?”
Ian kept his face straight with difficulty. The urge to laugh was almost overpowering. “I wouldn’t feel right,” he said. “About taking your money.”
“My expenses are being covered. And you’d be doing me a huge favor.” Daisy grasped his hand in both of hers and curled his fingers around the bill.
At that moment, everything changed. Because Ms. Daisy Wexler had the softest, most delicate touch Ian had ever felt. Immediately, his mind conjured up wicked, unexpected scenarios of him and Daisy frolicking in bed…naked…with those slender fingers wrapped around his—
He cleared his throat, stepping back half a stride, all amusement vaporized by the blasting surge of lust that threatened to bring him to his knees. No longer touching her, he strove to regain his senses. Dukes did not frolic, particularly with strangers. Therein lay the path to ruin. This woman was dangerous.
And yet Ian had never wanted to be a duke. He was a man, too, damn it. And this man didn’t want to let Daisy go just yet.
The money in his hand burned his skin. Without second-guessing his actions, he stuffed it in her tote, taking care not to make contact with her in any way. “If it means that much to you, I’ll see what I can do.”
The brilliance of her smile almost blinded him. “Thank you,” she cried, reaching out to hug him. For a brief moment her small breasts mashed against his chest. Flyaway, sunshiny hair teased his lips. The fragrance of rose petals assailed his nostrils. It was everything he could manage not to bend her over his arm and kiss her senseless.
Instead, he did the right thing, a lamentable characteristic of Wolffhampton dukes through the ages. He straightened his spine and held her at arm’s length. “We Brits are not as chummy at first meeting as you Yanks,” he said laconically. “No need for an overabundance of gratitude. You’ll likely not leave here with what you want. So don’t expect too much.” Releasing her reluctantly, he bent and picked up a pail of hog feed, using it as armor. Perhaps the ridiculous state of his love life was to blame for his aberrant behavior….
“But you’ll help me?” The anxiety on her face made him squirm inwardly. He was not, by nature, a duplicitous man. But he’d waded into a deep pit of muddy intentions, and the climb out was a slippery slope—one that would surely mean the end of any encounters with Daisy Wexler.
He nodded, wanting to do anything to coax that warm, wonderful smile out of hiding again. “I’ll try. Tell me more about why you’re here.”
Wide-spaced sapphire eyes regarded him with suspicion. He fancied that her chin tilted skyward a centimeter or two. “I don’t think I should be gossiping about the duke’s private affairs,” she said stiffly. “I’m sure he would appreciate my discretion.”
I’m sure he would appreciate peeling the clothes from your body like the skin of a ripe peach and sucking your…
Sweat broke out on Ian’s forehead. Thank God his trousers were fashioned of thick corduroy, or else this sylph of a woman would be shocked to see that he was hard as a steel spike.
At that moment, Daisy couldn’t care less about her mission. She was far more entranced with the way the stranger’s eyes had shone hot with desire before he deliberately reined it in and pretended to ignore the sizzle in the air. Daisy was not particularly experienced, but she recognized hunger when she saw it. This tough, rugged man with muddy boots and elegant hands wanted her.
The knowledge excited her. Daisy was not the kind of woman who drove men to do wild things. She was a good organizer, a decent cook and a damned fine researcher. But she was neither seductive nor sexy. That wasn’t self-pity speaking. She merely knew her own limitations.
But this man saw her differently… Suddenly she wished she had worn a more alluring outfit than a comfy cotton dress that traveled well.
Nibbling her bottom lip for half a second, she blurted out a most un-Daisy-like invitation. “Would you have dinner with me tonight? After I meet with the duke?” This stranger really would think she was a pushy, forward American if she kept this up. “My treat,” she said hastily, once again assessing the worn state of the man’s attire.
His throat and face flushed. A noticeable bulge tented the front of his pants.
. Daisy blushed as well, feeling hot and shaky and wonderfully excited. Suddenly, she had a vision of the two of them hidden away in a hay-filled barn, Daisy riding astride this man’s impressive, impossible-to-miss—
“I’ll have to take a rain check,” he said gruffly. “Perhaps another time.”
The gentle rebuff curdled her stomach. She rarely put herself out there, and this was why. He had shot her down, albeit gently, but nevertheless a slap in the face. Gathering her tattered composure, she ignored the way her eyes stung and her throat closed up. “Very well. I only wanted to show my gratitude for your assistance.”