Forbidden to the Duke(9)

By: Liz Tyner

‘I would like to reassure you,’ he said, ‘that the rabbits will soon be holding soirées among the parsnips and their smiling teeth will be green-stained from all the vegetables they harvest. The traps are to be removed. You do not have to check my lands. No more traps.’

‘Thank you.’ She nodded. ‘It is a relief.’

‘In return, I would like very much for you to have tea with my mother tomorrow,’ he said. He heard the youth still in his voice. That strange sound. Too much sincerity for the simple question. ‘Please consider it. My mother is very alone right now,’ he quickly added.

She moved, still grasping the arrow pieces, but her hand rested on the spine of the sofa. She studied his face. ‘I don’t... The English customs...’

She was going to say no and he couldn’t let her. He had to explain.

‘My mother will not know you are arriving and I will summon her once you are there. Otherwise she may not leave her room.’ His chuckle was dry. ‘She likely will not leave her chamber, unless I insist. But as you understand what it is like to miss a person you care for, I would appreciate your spending a few moments speaking with the duchess. Perhaps she will feel less alone.’

She didn’t speak.

‘My brother has passed recently. My father died almost two years ago, soon after my older sister and her new husband perished in a fire while visiting friends. My mother is becoming less herself with each passing day. She misses her family more with each hour.’ He controlled his voice, removing all emotion. ‘She is trapped—by memories—and only feels anger and self-pity.’

‘I will visit your mana.’ She spoke matter-of-factly. ‘And if she does not wish to leave her chamber, I do not mind at all. I will visit her there.’

He turned, nodding, and with a jerk of his chin indicated the arrow in her hand.

‘Would you really hurt me?’ he asked.

Something flickered behind her eyes. Some memory he could never see.

‘I hope I could,’ she said. ‘I tell myself every day that I will be strong enough.’

‘You wish to kill someone?’

She shook her head, tousled hair falling softly, and for a moment she didn’t look like the woman she was, but reminded him of a lost waif. ‘No. I wish to be strong enough.’

‘Have you ever...hurt anyone?’

She shook her head. ‘No. I know of no woman who has ever killed a man, except my grandmother, Gigia.’

He waited.

‘A man, from a ploio. A ship. He was not good. He killed one of the women from our island and hurt another one almost to her death. Gigia gave him drink. Much drink, and he fell asleep. He should not have fallen asleep. Gigia said it was no different than killing a goat, except the man was heavier. My mana and uncle were there and they buried him. I do not think the men from the ship cared about losing him. They did not hunt for him long. Gigia gave them wine and we helped them search.’

Rhys took a breath. He’d invited this woman into his home, where his mother would meet her. This woman who seemed no more civilised than the rabbits she wished to protect and yet, he wanted to bury his face against her skin and forget.

‘I see.’ He frowned, repressing his notice of her as a woman. He certainly did not need to be noting the insignificant things about her.

‘From your face, I think you do.’ Instantly, her eyes pinched into a tilted scowl, her nose wrinkled. She mocked him. His mouth opened the barest bit. Yes, she’d jested.

‘Miss Cherroll,’ he spoke, beginning his reprimand, holding himself to the starched demeanour his father had used, one strong enough that even a royal would take notice of it. ‘Perhaps my mother could also be of some guidance to you.’

Lashes fluttered. A dash of sadness tinged her words, but the chin did not soften. ‘I am beyond repair.’

Bits of words fluttered through his mind, but none found their way to his lips. He took a moment appraising her, then caught himself, tamping down the sparking embers.

This would not be acceptable. He had survived his sister’s death. He had survived his father’s death. Geoff was gone. The duchess was failing. Rhys’s vision tunnelled around him, leaving only images from memory. He would take his own heart from his chest and wring it out with his two hands before he let it close to another person.

He turned his body from her with more command than he would ever unleash on the ribbons from a horse’s bridle.

‘I did not mean to anger you so...’ Her voice barely rose above the drumming in his ears.

‘I am merely thinking,’ he said.

‘You must stop, then. It’s not agreeing with you.’