“MISS PERTWEE, GET off those rocks. I’ve warned you before.” Bhrodi de Shera, the tenth Duke of Pembroke, left the hillside walking trail that hugged the coastal cliffs of Pembroke and strode toward Prudence Pertwee with a frown that she could not possibly ignore, but she managed to do so anyway. Irritating girl.
“Good morning, Your Grace.” Prudence lowered her spyglass and smiled brightly at him. She brushed back a lock of her fiery red hair that had blown onto her forehead and calmly waited for him to climb the few rocks to reach her side. “Have you come to join us?”
“No, Miss Pertwee. I want you off this ledge.” He repeated his command, wondering how a young woman who barely came up to his shoulder could have so much obstinance packed into her slender body. Her companions looked suitably frightened of him. Why couldn’t she respond the same way? It was barely after sunrise and the autumn sun was only now burning away the mist that hovered over the windswept sea and clung to the slippery rocks below. “You’ll hurt yourself.”
“I haven’t yet. I understand the danger and am always careful. Especially up here.” She was standing on an exposed outcropping at the edge of Bhrodi’s property, a high promontory that jutted out over the now glistening white-capped sea. The wind was quite fierce up here, blowing her serviceable gown of forest green wool flat against her shapely body, but she appeared as determined to ignore its strong gusts as she was to ignore him.
“I’ll give you to the count of three.”
She brushed back another loose strand that had escaped her neat bun because of the steady wind and cast him a defiant look.
“But the black-tailed godwits have started their migration,” she said with an exasperated huff. “So have the cormorants and gannets. Your cliffs are filled with them. Do stay and watch them with us. We’d love to have your company.” She forced an annoyingly effervescent smile that rankled him. She rankled him. Especially because he knew that she didn’t mean a word of her invitation. She thought he was an ogre. She’d called him that before.
She was still smiling at him in a soft, beautiful way that almost had him believing she was sincere.
No one should be permitted to look so lovely – or cheerful, for that matter – before the breakfast hour. It was only a short while after sunrise and here she was, chirping away as happily as those birds she was so diligently watching.
“I don’t care if their tails are black or yellow or purple.” Bhrodi deepened his frown at the young woman who had been leading the Pembroke chapter of the Ladies Birdwatching Society across his cow pasture toward Llangolyn Rock to observe said black-tailed godwits every day for the past three weeks. “You are trespassing on my property and I want you off it now.”
The sun chose just that moment to shine upon her glorious red curls, seeming to turn them to silken flame. The impertinent Miss Pertwee also had green eyes the exotic color of jade that were quite exquisite, even as she insolently glowered at him. “We’ve had this conversation before, Your Grace. Every day for the past three weeks, to be precise. My answer to you is still the same. Your father, the late Duke of Pembroke, granted our society the unfettered right to cross your lands. Your cliffs are a feeding ground for goshawks and choughs and your particular favorite,” she said, her voice laced with sarcasm, “the black-tailed godwit.”
“Don’t forget to mention your great tits, Miss Pertwee,” intoned a bombazine clad matron with an insufferable air of authority.
Bhrodi’s heart stopped.
Indeed, Miss Pertwee had a great pair of… blast, he was in for it now. The girl knew exactly what he was thinking since his gaze had immediately shot to her breathtakingly perfect bosom at the comment. He’d only looked for an instant before hastily turning away, but she’d noticed. Nothing ever escaped her sharp gaze and that irritated him as well.
He groaned and ran a hand roughly through his hair. No, he wasn’t going to say it. But yes, she had the most magnificent pair of… and what idiot had come up with such a name for a bird? A tit. Seriously? And its cousin, the great tit.
How could one speak of that bird without sounding lewd?
And how could one look at Miss Pertwee without noticing…
Her beautiful eyes narrowed in warning.
Bhrodi turned away from her to wave everyone off the outcropping. Since he was the present Duke of Pembroke, they all immediately obeyed. All but the stubborn Miss Pertwee. He turned back to her with a grunt. “The wind is quite strong today. I’d hate for you to lose your footing and fall. It’s dangerous out here.” For more reasons than a treacherous cliff face.
The wind chose just that moment to intensify to a gale force gust. It was as though some divine force had been listening to his words and thought to have a bit of perverse fun. Miss Pertwee staggered back and lost her balance when her foot struck a loose rock that rolled out from under her.
Bhrodi reached out to grab her by one of her flailing arms.
He tried to be gentle, but it was either pull her hard toward him or allow her to fall. So he pulled and she slammed with an oof against his chest, her soft body molding to his in that instant and shocking both of them with the unexpected heat of that impact. He wrapped his arms around her. She slid her hands up his chest to grab onto his shoulders and cling to them with all her might.
One… two… three… four… five seconds passed.
Her eyes widened in sudden awareness.
She gave a cry and pushed off him with all haste.
In the next moment, she cried out again, but this time in pain. She’d twisted her ankle on that loose rock. Her leg buckled out from under her when she made the mistake of putting her weight on it. She fell to the ground before Bhrodi could catch her. “Blessed saints, are you all right?”
“Miss Pertwee!” The members of her society flocked around her like the birds they were studying. “You’re hurt. Can you walk?”
“Yes, I’m sure I can.” But her eyes were glistening with threatened tears that indicated otherwise. She attempted to rise and sank back with another soft cry.
Bhrodi ordered everyone to stand back while he knelt beside her and untied her boot lace. “Your foot will swell. Did you feel a bone break?”
She shook her head. “No, I think I’ve just sprained my ankle. Of all the wretched luck.”
He took hold of her leg, ignoring the jolt of heat that shot through him at the mere touch of the girl, and very gently tugged off her boot. He wasn’t attracted to this impertinent nuisance. Not in the least. That his blood was on fire had nothing to do with her or the divine softness of her body. “You’re fortunate you didn’t tumble off the cliff ledge,” he muttered angrily, although he was angrier with himself for liking everything about this girl.
His unexpected response to her nearness was not her fault, but he blamed her anyway.
“I suppose I ought to be grateful to you.” She sighed and eased back. “Indeed, I am. Truly. You saved my life. Thank you, Your Grace.”
He grumbled an acceptance. “You’re obviously incapable of walking. Here, put your arms around my neck.” He ignored the excited whispers coming from Miss Pertwee’s companions who were standing behind him.
Bollocks, what were these old hens going on about? The girl was injured. He wasn’t romantically sweeping her off her feet.
He turned to the ladies, instantly stopping their chatter. “Today’s excursion is at an end. Return to town, but make certain to stay on the walking paths and don’t stray off them. I’ll deliver Miss Pertwee home in my carriage.”
“She ought to have a chaperone,” the bombastic lady who’d spoken earlier intoned.
Indeed, she ought to, but he wasn’t about to invite the entire society into his home. It was his sanctuary. His private retreat. If he’d wanted company, he’d be in London enjoying the amusements offered by the sophisticated women who populated the demi-monde. “Do you doubt my honor?”
He’d been raised to be a duke and knew how to cut a person down to size with one frosty stare. The woman immediately backed down. “No, Your Grace. Your reputation is impeccable.”
Even if it wasn’t – which it certainly wasn’t – no one would ever dare tell him so to his face.
He helped Miss Pertwee to her feet.
She took great care to put her weight only on her uninjured leg. “I think I can manage if I lean against someone sturdy and then hop.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” He scooped her into his arms. She wasn’t heavy. Indeed, she had a slender build. Trim waist, narrow hips. Light bones.
But she was soft and full up front where it counted.
He might find her irresistible if she weren’t so irritating.
“Wait!” she cried as he was about to carry her off. “I mustn’t forget my spyglass. It’s over there, by the loose rock.”
One of her younger female companions picked it up and handed it to her. “Oh, Prudence. I hope the glass isn’t broken.”
Miss Pertwee smiled kindly at the young woman whose blonde curls were neatly fashioned atop her head and who had pleasant, bright blue eyes. She appeared to be an amiable, biddable sort of girl. One who respected rank and stature, unlike the young woman in his arms who challenged him at every turn. “I’m sure it’s fine. Thank you, Lucinda. It fell onto the grass, not against the rocks.”
Bhrodi cleared his throat to put an end to their conversation. He wanted Prudence Pertwee out of his arms and away from him as quickly as possible. “I’ll have my estate manager put up warning signs around this outcropping. If I catch any of you here again, I’ll toss you off the cliffs myself.”
He got the desired response, a collective gasp from the ladies, except from Miss Pertwee who called him a cobble-headed dunce. She’d muttered it under her breath, but she was in his arms and her lips were close to his ear, so of course he’d heard the insult.
He chose to overlook it.
Prudence was getting under his skin in too many ways this morning. Besides, he had more important matters to worry about than her or her squawking birds. Falling rocks, for one. Smugglers, for another. There were caves used by them all along the coastline. What if Prudence accidentally spotted smugglers hiding their wares in one of those caves? What if she decided to investigate on her own?
Bhrodi had been investigating a particularly nasty crew for the past two months, one that had caught the attention of those in the highest ranks of the royal circle. Prinny himself had asked Bhrodi to return to Pembroke to discover the identity of their leader. No one knew who this man was, only that he went by the name of Mongoose.
It was a purposeful insult to Bhrodi. Indeed, a brash challenge, for everyone knew that Bhrodi was a direct descendant of the legendary Serpent, one of the bravest warriors ever to fight for Wales.
A mongoose killed snakes and this man had twice attempted to kill him. This was a direct challenge. For this reason, Bhrodi had immediately accepted to act as an agent for the Crown.
It was a matter of family honor.
Bhrodi even bore the Serpent’s name, Bhrodi de Shera. How could he not step in and destroy those who dishonored his family?
But first, he had to get rid of this irritating beauty in his arms.
She was too distracting.
He needed to concentrate on breaking up the ring of smugglers.
And stop thinking about how to get the luscious Miss Pertwee out of her clothes and into his bed.