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Authors: Olivia Ritch

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BOOK: Duke Herheart Final
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“The Atlantic passage takes weeks. You could not possibly have made it in one night.”

She sighed and adjusted the slipping quilt once more. “You can imagine I am thinking that myself…but here I am.”

“There must be some other explanation for your confusion.”

Would you believe a time machine or a vortex or a wormhole? Or
maybe a little magic painting?

She thought just for an instant about telling him about the odd little painting that so resembled this time period that had been the only thing new in her life in the last twenty-four hours but since she wasn’t sure it was relevant yet herself, there was no reason to convince him she was nuts right on the spot. The warmth had already gone completely out of his dark eyes and it was clear he was no longer really sure what to make of her. “I’d welcome it if you could tell me how I got here overnight but I’ll settle for you not tossing me out on my ear.”

“I must admit I have no idea what to say.”

Having confided in him, she was well aware he could have easily been a jerk rather than a gentleman. “It sounds crazy I know. It’s not like you have any reason to believe me.”

“I would believe that you are in a predicament. How
are
you going to travel home?”

“Getting home is another story altogether but right now I’m just working on the immediate problem of the clothing.” Kathryn gestured to her quilt-covered form.

“If I might, I will venture out into the street and see if there are any

…stores.”

“Oh you will, you’ll do that for me?”

“I will.”

8

Duke of Her Dreams – Olivia Ritch

Suddenly being stranded in this bizarre dream world didn’t seem quite so bad. “I’ll have to figure out a way to pay you back but if you would find me something, I’d be so grateful.”

“Let us worry about payment only if I succeed in the mission.”

“Right. Thank you. Do you need my size?”

“I believe I have a very good idea of your size.”

“Oh.” She felt the heat seep into her cheeks at his obvious reference to having seen more than she meant to show. The night gown she had worn to bed the night before was almost transparent and she was wearing blue satin low-rise panties under it that must have been visible as she struggled to cover herself in the heavy and awkward quilt.


Indeed.

He bowed to her and because she was suddenly trying to keep herself hidden as much as possible, she waved in response. She enjoyed the smile that lifted the corners of his mouth and lit his entire face. It was a nice face now that she thought about it with tanned shadowed cheekbones and the dark sparkling eyes that had been all shades of warm and cold throughout their exchange.

As the gentleman turned to go Kathryn recalled him. “Sir, what’s your name?”

The man obviously hesitated before he answered. “Asterleigh.”

With that interesting pronouncement, he turned and disappeared down the stairs. As Asterleigh’s footsteps faded, Kathryn had her first real sense that things might be okay.

Since her borrowed room was at the front of the inn, she’d have a perfect view of the man as he made his way down the street. After locking the door so no other visitors could barge in on her, Kathryn crossed the chilled wood floor to the window, drew back the lace, and idly scanned the quaint street. Her window afforded her a sweeping vision of a cobbled street clogged with horses bearing riders, and carts loaded with goods maneuvered by nondescript men. The women sported drab-colored street-length dresses with billowing skirts, large awkward looking bonnets, baskets slung over their arms and some even had small processions of dully-dressed children. The shop signs creaked in the light breeze and the humanity was moving as if nothing was at all unusual.

But of course, nothing was unusual for
them
. Kathryn had to admit the street was charming. Just like in a Regency romance novel.

She watched Asterleigh emerge from one shop as quickly as he had entered, striding toward the next. She saw that he had not yet acquired any bags but thought the determined look on his face was a very good sign. He disappeared into a shop with a millinery sign.
Wasn’t that a hat
9

Duke of Her Dreams – Olivia Ritch

maker?
That store probably wouldn’t have dresses either. As if on cue, the gentleman reappeared and made for a third shop. As interesting as it was to watch his long, graceful strides, and study the activity on the churned road below, Kathryn knew she should probably be doing something productive like developing a Plan B for getting some clothes.

She turned from the window and the very pleasant image of the gentleman vanished in an almost literal puff as the most disturbing thought of the day asserted itself. Kathryn’s younger sister Christine would be frantic, worried sick, their early morning emails having gone unanswered, their routine of sharing important news and sisterly gossip disturbed.

Kathryn had always been able to predict Christine’s reactions to stress and the question of her sister’s safety. Christy would indeed be very worried. Probably enough to take off and drive over to check on her which, of course, would tell her nothing but that her big sister had disappeared into thin air. There would probably be police and an investigation and all the uproar over a missing young woman and Christine would never have an answer if Kathryn didn’t get home some day. Thinking about the entire scenario made her nauseous. Kathryn vowed she would find a way, somehow, to get word to Christy that she was okay.

The loud stomach rumble that accompanied these thoughts added to her poor physical state. Devoting her troubled mind to determining a way to get a message to Christy at least distracted her thoughts temporarily from her very empty belly. That dinner of fat free yogurt and crunchy peanut butter had not gone far.

Temporary distractions lasted only a few minutes, and while Kathryn’s stomach was still growling, she started shivering and was pretty sure it wasn’t just from the cold. She hoped this episode would pass and she would in a short time feel normal, rational and sane again—

to the extent she could under the circumstances.

The initial shock of waking up in a strange bed, in a strange town, in a foreign land, in what she now knew to be a totally different century from her own was indeed fading. Kathryn could and would manage.

There was really no choice. Kathryn had taken care of herself her entire life. At least she no longer felt completely, utterly alone since the sexy guy named Asterleigh was supposedly out getting her some clothes.

Kathryn was grateful.

After all the years of being on her own with only her sister Christy to care for and no man to rely on, here she was in such a foreign place, with a stranger acting the hero for her, like her very own knight in 10

Duke of Her Dreams – Olivia Ritch

shining armor.

If he failed her it wouldn’t really matter because this was only a dream anyway, wasn’t it? Kathryn thought once again she might wake up and soon. A little self-delusion wasn’t going to hurt, not if it made things easier for now.

The rattling of the door handle startled Kathryn from her self-pitying and she plunged under the bed in case the person on the other side had a key. When the rattling stopped, she realized the person must not have expected the room to be locked. Probably a maid had come to freshen up the room.

She obviously needed to get out of it. “Come on legs, move. Breathe Kat, you can do this.” She grabbed up the now useless pile of junk that had made this odd journey with her, slipped the case off the pillow and stuffed it all in. She peeked into the hall and made a mad dash for the room next door praying it belonged to her new friend and he had left the door unlocked.

11

Duke of Her Dreams – Olivia Ritch

Chapter Two

Captain Michael Stafford, lately of His Majesty’s Army, contemplated the petite woman with her swirling rainbow of hair and warm drawly voice. Thoughts of her brought an involuntary smile to Michael’s face and his body reacted uncomfortably to the image of warmly expressive green-gold eyes, an elusive but captivating smile, and dark peach skin. Michael had been particularly mesmerized by the woman’s perfectly formed pink painted toes she had not even tried to cover.

She had hidden under the bed quilt but it had done little to conceal her charms because she was radiant. It was all there in her openness and candor, the vibrancy of her skin, the way her words rolled off her tongue as if she was confident, even in such a distressing situation. Good grief, he had clearly been without any proper distractions for far too long if he was thinking of the tiny American’s charms in such a hopeful manner.

Indeed, what could possess him? She surely was altogether not respectable. What proper lady travels alone? There’s no maid, no coachman, no footman? Why was no one watching her? And while he had not met many Americans, of the ones he had, none had talked like she had. As he descended the stairs, Michael decided the woman was definitely not a lady, at least not in the way the English meant the description. Surely doing the bidding of an improper woman was not a foreshadowing of what this new life was going to be like. Although his life had been rather dull before the Army, the American was no doubt going to cause him any number of hours of distraction.

It was apparent to Michael almost immediately that he would find no ladies gowns to purchase on the street and worse, that if he did it would cause him a scandal he would rather avoid. He hadn’t planned this campaign well at all. In fact, looking back at the inn, he half expected and feared seeing any minute the woman being thrown out the front door. Why was the dammed woman, that particular one of all people, commanding his thoughts to the exclusion of all else? It was just
her
and her exquisite shape and her eyes, into which he could drown.

“Pardon me, Your Grace?” The slight man stopped short in his path, fingering his hat in his hands and bowed stiffly.

Damn. Caught, distracted
. “Yes, sir. What can I do for you?” The vicar’s collar was a giveaway but Michael did not know this one and had 12

Duke of Her Dreams – Olivia Ritch

not really expected to be recognized just yet. He had been gone a long time and his departure had been as a uniformed officer with close-cropped hair.

“Ahh, it
is
you. Your Grace, we are relieved to see you returned hale and whole…but I forget my manners. I am Stogwell, the Vicar. We hope you will join us for services. Your mother …” he lowered his eyes reverently.

“Yes, I know. She was a generous patron. I intend to honor her memory. Perhaps you and your wife will call on me after I have settled in and you will share with me how I can assist you.” The foray into the streets had been necessary but now he realized too late the error. Several of the townspeople were regarding them with curiosity and a few with outright awe. His coat of blue superfine and elegant cravat stood out among the drab of the villagers. Smiling at the closest onlookers, Michael returned his attention to the vicar.

“Your Grace, we would be honored. Mrs. Stogwell will be delighted.”

“I trust you will bring me news of the festival?”

“Oh yes, and well the ladies of the committee will want to include you.”

Michael realized the gentleman in front of him might save him more traipsing. “Mr. Stogwell, have we developed any seamstress shops since I’ve been gone? I am in earnest for a gift for my sister.”

“Alas no, Your Grace. Gloves or bonnets will be your only choices.”

“My mistake. I should have gotten a present in London. I must be off. My staff will be expecting me.”

“Oh yes, Your Grace. Very well.”

Michael nodded and parted from the still-bowing clergyman who he hoped he had not offended with his curt dismissal.

* * * *

Determined to have the question of the woman’s situation settled, Michael’s quick step gained him the inn’s porch in a few short strides.

The tap’s few patrons were busy with their morning plates. The sausages had been quite good and the coffee strong to his liking and he suddenly realized the woman had probably not enjoyed the hearty breakfast he had if she had no clothes. Concerned, Michael charged on The shabby innkeeper was not at his post. Gut churning at the possibility that they might have discovered the green-eyed minx, Michael took the stairs two at a time. He fingered his key and slipped it into the lock but the door eased open with no effort. Had he forgotten to lock it in his distraction?

13

Duke of Her Dreams – Olivia Ritch

He knew instantly on gaining his room that
she
had been there. The woman had left a faint smell of woman musk, salt and something oddly tropical. He had never smelled a woman like her. Hers must be
essence
of America
he thought with a wry smile.

And damn it all she had slipped past him while he had been detained by the vicar. The muscles in his chest tightened as he caught sight of a single sheet lying on his bed on top of a puddle of pink fabric.

Dear Sir,

Someone tried the door to my room and since I did not have a
way to pay, I slipped into your room to get away. I’m really sorry
to run off but I figured you would not want to come back and be
discovered in your room with a woman wearing only a
nightgown. I borrowed a pair of your pants and a shirt and have
left you my nightie in exchange. I hope someday to repay you,
since I am sure your riding pants are worth far more than what I
left you. Thank you for your kindness. I wish you safe continued
travels home.

Sincerely,

Kathryn

A frustrated growl boiled from his gut, but Michael resisted the urge to reduce her missive to ashes.
Kathryn
. Her name was Kathryn.

Michael slumped against the bedpost. His deceased wife had been Catherine and it somehow seemed fitting that he was once again embroiled in a sure scandal with this Kathryn. Right now, she was walking the street dressed as a lad in likely ill-fitting shirt and breeches.

BOOK: Duke Herheart Final
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