Lieutenant Charles Heywood came to a halt in front of the holly- and ivy-festooned window of the draper’s shop. He was just about to enter—intent on purchasing Christmas presents for his mother and younger sister—when a small, filthy gray mongrel dog darted past him.
It was a busy day in Bond Street. Shoppers bundled up against the cold in heavy topcoats and cloaks hurried up one side and down the other. Their arms were laden with parcels, their puffs of breath visible in the frosty December air. Carriages and cabs rattled by them through the mud. Drivers jockeyed for position amid the heavy afternoon traffic that clogged the center of the street. Pedestrians crossed at their peril.
But the thin little dog exercised no caution.
He flew straight into the path of an oncoming conveyance, seemingly set on catching the wheels of a passing carriage and four.
A jolt of alarm spurred Charles into action. He surged into the street, narrowly avoiding being flattened by a coach himself. Vehicles veered around him. The muck from the flying hooves of the horses spattered his greatcoat
“Bloody fool!” one of the drivers shouted.
Charles didn’t stop to apologize. The pup was on the move and Charles along with him.
He had many flaws, undeniably, but no one had ever accused him of failing to be a man of action. It was what he’d chiefly been known for during his time away. Eight years altogether, spent serving in Her Majesty’s Navy. Always the first into the fray, no matter the risk to life and limb.
It was a quality he’d hoped to put behind him now he was finally back in England. He’d had enough of swashbuckling adventure. He was ready to settle down to a quiet, uneventful life.
His ship had only docked in London yesterday morning. It was but a brief stop in his journey. Tomorrow, he’d be traveling home to join his parents and sister at Heywood House, their family estate in Somersetshire. A long-awaited reunion. A difficult one as well.
He’d seen his family only a handful of times since leaving Somersetshire eight years ago. Just a few short visits managed while he was on leave. It had been four years since the last one. Then, Charles and his father had argued, relitigating the past with no little acrimony. His father had never wanted him to be a soldier or a sailor, risking life and limb in service to the crown. Indeed, he’d strictly forbidden Charles from joining up.
But Charles had no thought for that now. Nor for the Christmas presents he was meant to be buying in a feeble effort to atone for the pain of his absence. There was only the dog and the immediate threat of danger.
Charles reached out to grab the muddy miscreant, but the little beast nimbly darted away, snapping first at the wheels of one carriage and then another.
The dog was in the throes of the chase, heedless of the crushing danger of the wheels or the steel-shod hooves of the horses. It was a madness in some creatures. Charles had observed it before. Raised in the country among his mother’s pack of unruly dogs (a ragtag group of dubious lineage and character), he’d learned from the cradle to count animals as his friends. He’d seen them at their best—and at their worst.
But this snarling canine was nobody’s friend. He didn’t appear to reciprocate any fellow feeling toward humankind at all.
Reaching the opposite side of the street, the dog turned his focus on the bustling shoppers. He weaved through the crowd, snapping at a passing woman’s skirts and baring his teeth in a threatening matter. Never mind that he couldn’t have been more than half a stone in weight.
“Away with you!” An elderly lady in a plumed bonnet batted at him with her silk-ruffled umbrella. “Do something, Smithers,” she cried to the liveried footman accompanying her, “before he ruins my hem!”
Obedient to his mistress, the footman swung his foot to kick the dog back into the street.
But the wiry little mongrel was too canny.
He dodged away, setting his sights on another pair of shoppers up ahead—two stylish young ladies walking arm in arm. His gimlet eyes fixed on the bell-shaped mazarine velvet skirts of the smaller lady’s expensive-looking carriage gown. Mayhem was plainly on his mind.
With a sigh of resignation, Charles moved to intervene.
He was thinking more of the dog than the young lady. A shortcoming of his, to be sure. It was one that arose as much from upbringing as inclination. His compassion for animals frequently overshadowed his concern for the comfort of well-to-do human beings.
“Pardon me, ma’am,” he began.
The velvet-clad young lady turned to look at him in the selfsame moment the little dog latched onto her skirts. Her eyes widened in surprise.
They were blue eyes.
Charles’s words of warning died on his lips. For an instant, he forgot where he was.
But only for an instant.
He may not be immune to the sight of a pretty face, but neither was he a green lad. He was nearly nine and twenty. A hardened sailor to the bone. He’d encountered plenty of beautiful women in his lifetime.
Though, admittedly, this female was something out of the common way.
And it wasn’t only the blue of her eyes, as rich and midnight-velvety as the fabric of her gown, it was the turn of her flawless ivory-and-damask-rose countenance.
But she was no milk-and-water miss, for all that. Not if her face was to judge.
There was an air of strength in the winged arch of her mink brows and the firm line of her jaw. It was softened only slightly by the voluptuous curve of her mouth and the fetching cleft in her chin. A cupid’s thumbprint, he’d sometimes heard it called. The sign of a bold and sensuous nature.
It took an effort not to stare. Not to privately catalogue every contour and lilt in her vivid expression.
If she noticed the effect she had on him, she gave no sign of it. Her gaze dropped at once to the growling dog attached to her hem. A bemused smile touched her lips.
“Naughty boy.” She stretched out an elegantly gloved hand to gently remove the beast. “You mustn’t worry my skirts.”
“Don’t touch him!” Charles commanded.
The taller young lady gasped at his tone.
And no wonder.
It was the same voice he’d often used on the deck of the HMS Intrepid. One perfectly pitched to reduce wayward underlings into quivering masses of compliance.
The blue-eyed young lady didn’t even flinch. “Nonsense.” She continued to reach for the dog. “He’s just a mischievous pup. He doesn’t mean any—”
The dog responded to her advances with vicious speed, sinking his teeth into her gloved fingers.
“Oh!” She jerked her hand back with a startled cry. The fine leather of her kid glove was torn open. A drop of blood welled from her exposed finger, bright as crimson against her skin.
Charles’s stomach tightened to see it. He shrugged off his greatcoat and, in one deft movement, threw it over the snarling dog. Using the coat as a blanket, he wrapped the little creature up and lifted him into his arms.
A good swaddle was known to work miracles on small animals who had run amok. This one was no different. The dog fought his captivity in vain for but a moment before ceasing his struggles in favor of muffled yips and grumbles.
Shoppers began to slow around them, some of them stopping to investigate the source of the commotion.
“He’s bitten me,” the blue-eyed young lady said in amazement.
“I told you not to touch him,” Charles shot back. “If you’d listened—”
“I beg your pardon, sir,” her tall friend interjected. “Can you not see that she’s hurt?”
The first woman the dog had accosted caught up with them through the growing crowd, her footman close at her heels. She waved her umbrella about like an angry queen brandishing her scepter. “Summon the constable! That dog is a menace.”
“He may have hydrophobia,” her footman volunteered unhelpfully. “And now he’s bitten this poor lady.”
“An unprovoked attack,” the older woman said. “A sure sign the beast is rabid!”
Charles muttered an oath under his breath. “He doesn’t have hydrophobia,” he said, holding tight to the still growling dog. “And if he does and she’s contracted it, she’d have no one to blame but herself.”
“She isn’t afraid of dogs,” the blue-eyed young lady retorted tartly. “Nor of trifling scratches.”
“Oh, Kate!” The taller young lady’s eyes welled with tears. “You’re bleeding!”
“It’s nothing,” the blue-eyed young lady said. Kate, presumably.
Charles’s heart gave a peculiar thump. Reaching into the pocket of his waistcoat, he withdrew a linen handkerchief. It was clean and pressed, thank heaven. He offered it to her, his voice gone gruff. “It is only a scratch, but perchance you should bind it.”
She accepted his handkerchief, using it to stop the trickle of blood. “You’re very obliging,” she remarked dryly.
“So he should be, if it’s his dog,” the taller young lady said.
Kate’s gaze met his in challenge. “Is that your dog?”
“That creature belongs to no one,” the older woman declared. “It’s a mongrel. A street dog. Anyone can see.”
“He’s filthy,” the taller young lady said. “And he smells dreadfully.”
Charles couldn’t disagree. The stench from the dog’s muddy fur was emanating all the way through the folds of his greatcoat. No doubt he’d have to burn the garment. As for the dog himself…
“He’s somewhat worse for wear, I grant you,” Charles said. “He’s only recently arrived on a ship from Spain. The sailors should have taken better care of him.”
“From Spain?” the older woman repeated scornfully. “This dog?”
“He is, ma’am. A rare breed. One of the only of his kind.” Charles inwardly grimaced at so blatant a lie. But it was in a good cause. Given the chaos the dog had wrought, the interfering busybody was five seconds away from calling for the poor creature’s destruction. “Why do you think I was pursuing him?”
“He is yours, then?” Kate asked.
“Yes,” Charles answered emphatically. “He is. Now, if you’ll forgive me, I must get him home.”
She continued to look at him, as though he’d said something that both bewildered and intrigued her. “You better had, sir,” she said at last, “before the constable arrives.”
Charles didn’t have to be told twice. Offering the three ladies a rigid bow, he strode away through the growing throng, the snarling dog still cradled in his arms.
This wasn’t going to go over well at Grillon’s Hotel.
But no matter.
In twenty-four hours, Charles would be home. Once there, his mother and sister would take charge.
A half-starving London street dog wasn’t the Christmas present he’d envisioned for them, but knowing their feelings toward the canine race, the matted stray might yet prove to be the perfect gift.
Lady Katherine Beresford stared after the tall, raven-haired gentleman as he stalked off down Bond Street, disappearing into the crowd of Christmas shoppers.
His greatcoat had made him seem impossibly large and imposing. Without it, he somehow appeared even more so.
He was clad all in black—black wool trousers, coat, and waistcoat, with a stiffly knotted black cravat. His skin was bronzed from the sun. An oddity at this time of year. They’d had nothing but rain for weeks. This gentleman, however, must have recently returned from a more pleasant clime. He had the look of a man who spent most of his time out of doors. One who enjoyed a bit of sport—riding, fencing, and boxing. The cut of his coat set off his broad shoulders to magnificent effect.
“What a rude fellow,” Christine remarked. She stood beside Kate, her narrow face the picture of ladylike outrage.
The eldest daughter of Lord and Lady Mattingly, Christine was as sensible as Kate was reckless. Her betrothal to an older baronet had been announced just last month. He was a dull sort of gentleman, but Christine was happy with him. She prided herself on being pragmatic about the future. It was a quality she’d inherited from her equally pragmatic mother, Jane.
Aunt Jane, as Kate was accustomed to calling Lady Mattingly, was Kate’s mother’s oldest friend. It was she who had brought them shopping today. They’d separated from her only briefly so she could purchase a new hat while they finished a fitting at the modiste. Kate and Christine had been on their way to join her at the milliner’s when the little dog had appeared.
Deprived of their spectacle, the gaggle of onlookers slowly dispersed. The umbrella-wielding busybody departed along with them, uttering one final huff of complaint as she went.
“Yes, he was,” Kate agreed when she and Christine were alone again. “But a handsome one.”
To be sure, Kate couldn’t recall when she’d seen any male so darkly attractive. Not during her season, anyway. And certainly not back home in the country, where she lived surrounded by her strapping older brothers, all of them golden-locked and ice-gray-eyed like her formidable father.
Papa was presently with Kate’s mother and brothers at Beasley Park, their family estate in Somersetshire. A beautiful property. Kate had spent a great deal of her childhood there, gamboling over the forget-me-not–covered grounds. It was where her parents had met and fallen in love when they were children themselves. A special place they returned to often, bringing Kate and her brothers with them.
Their visits had become less frequent of late, with good reason. On her great-grandfather’s death last year, Kate’s father had lost his courtesy title. No longer Viscount St. Clare, he had become the Earl of Allendale. As a consequence, the family now resided almost exclusively at Worth House, the seat of the earldom in Hertfordshire.
They were a close-knit bunch, albeit a slightly ramshackle one as far as society was concerned. Rumors still managed to cling from the past. Whispers that Papa was illegitimate and that the title he’d inherited wasn’t truly his but instead belonged to some odious distant cousin.
It was why Kate was in London alone instead of in company with her parents. Mama had thought it preferable for Aunt Jane to bring Kate out. And Aunt Jane had done so, to miserable effect. Six months later, her season at an end, Kate was still unmarried.
Tomorrow she would be traveling down to Somersetshire to join her family for Christmas, having achieved none of the things her parents had wished for her.
Kate tied the gentleman’s handkerchief tighter around her throbbing finger. Her mouth settled into a pensive frown.
She was too willful, that was the problem. And no gentleman wanted to shackle himself to a difficult wife, no matter how beautiful she might be. A man wanted a wife who was demure and biddable. A wife willing to dim her intellect and ability so that he could shine the brighter.
Kate would die, rather.
And anyway, what kind of man was intimidated by a woman merely because she could rival him in thought and deed? None worth having. Not as far as she was concerned.
“How can you call him handsome when he was so unforgivably unpleasant?” Christine wondered. “Rude, officious, and really quite—”
“Handsome,” Kate said again. “Why haven’t we seen him before?”
“Because he’s no gentleman, clearly,” Christine replied.
“Rubbish. He was well-spoken. And did you see how he carried himself?”
“I’m sorry, no.” Christine resumed walking down Bond Street. “I was rather distracted by his hydrophobic dog biting your hand.”
Kate kept pace with her friend. “It wasn’t his dog.”
“He claimed it was,” Christine said.
“He was lying.”
“I don’t know why he would. If the dog didn’t belong to him, what business had he in defending it? Or in taking it away from here?”
Kate gathered her heavy skirts in her hands as she sidestepped a puddle. “He was rescuing it, of course.”
Christine cast her a dubious glance. “Him?”
“Yes, the very man. Rude, officious, handsome, and…alarmingly tender-hearted, it seems. At least”—Kate smiled—“when it comes to dogs.”
A frown puckered Christine’s brow. “I wonder who he was?”
“I don’t know.” Kate’s shoulders set with determination. “But I intend to find out.”Return to Return to Satterthwaite Court