Rupert would never call her his foolish bride.
She is lovely, amusing, and a mystery.
All those tales about her could not possibly be true.
Or could they?
All those tales about her could not possibly be true.
Or could they?
The surprisingly elegant Miss Tolliver barred the path to her home, with her donkey beside her.
“Go away!” she commanded. “I have no wish to marry you. Your family is not civilized and I am sure you hate donkeys.” The hauteur in her voice was fit for a duchess, but the low husky laughter at the end of her tirade sounded both intimate and mocking.
Lord Rupert Veryan was perfectly willing to be both shocked and tantalized. He didn’t mind an insult from Farmer Tolliver’s daughter if it enlivened a dull day.
His mount stoically ignored the donkey, whose long ears poked up through a straw hat decorated with flowers from the hedgerow. The lady wore the same flowers woven in a crown around her glorious hair streaked every color of blonde. A few wavy locks escaped to waft in the light breeze. Her faded blue dress made her eyes glow turquoise in a face fit for a goddess.
A sunbeam broke through the scattered clouds. He stared thunderstruck at the sight, glad the lady was busy defending her drooping flower crown from the donkey.
“Stop it, Winnie,” she whispered in its ear. “I’ll give them to you later after the donkey hater has gone.”
Her profile was patrician and lovely, a sense of humor tilted her lips. Family lore said she was Sylvester’s daughter and she certainly looked it. Not that any of Sylvester’s daughters were lacking wits. Gossip said Miss Tolliver had been raised in a barn by a donkey and surely that would make a fool out of anyone.
Rupert answered her accusation seriously. “It’s true, I dislike most donkeys.” He couldn’t resist teasing her to see how she’d react. “That one has the advantage of looking like you, only wiser. It must be the handsome hat he is wearing.”
Instead of taking offense, she answered in the same serious tone he had used. “Winifred Wellington is a female donkey. Are you so foolish you can’t tell she is wearing her best summer bonnet?”
Miss Tolliver’s conversation so far should have made him believe all the rumors of her witless state, except for the way she met his eyes. He suspected she pulled his leg and enjoyed her joke. “You mustn’t insult me,” he chided gently. “I am civilized and willing to admire your donkey, if I must, though shouldn’t she be called Jenny?”
“That is my name! How could anyone possibly tell us apart if we have the same name?” She gave him a regal stare. “Winifred is far too clever to be called Jenny.”
“Then so are you!” At least he hoped she was.
“Jenny is my name.” She nodded as if conferring a dukedom on him. “You may use it until we are married, then you may call me your wife.”
“You may call me Rupert. If you promise not to tell anyone we are engaged. You have not perchance mistaken me for Romeo, have you?”
“Idiotic man!” she said, in her smiling voice. “Romeo is dead and buried beside his Juliet. Besides, we are not engaged yet.”
“Nor ever will be.” Her knowledge of Shakespeare surprised him.
“If you rent thirty-eight donkeys, you won’t need me.” The haughty minx stared up at him with an innocent air.
Determined not to disappoint her, he raised an eyebrow and drawled his reply, “Thirty-eight? A very precise number! But don’t donkeys fight?”
“Hush! You are not supposed to know that. Everyone will laugh at you, thinking you don’t know. It’s part of the plan. Don’t worry, I’ll bring Winnie along to speak to them. She loves to start donkey riots.”
“Can’t you speak to them?”
She gave a graceful shrug. “They won’t all understand me. I have an accent when I speak donkey.”
Rupert laughed out loud. “Will you teach me how to speak donkey?”
“Not now, there’s no time. Let’s save that treat for after we are married, when you are bored with me. Probably the next day.” She gave a sad shake of her head to set her flower crown dancing.
“Do you assume everyone wants to marry you? Have you had this delusion long?”
Miss Tolliver smiled up at him. “I have to smile at you when you insult me, so Winifred Wellington doesn’t take offense. She understands English very well.” The donkey gave a nod of agreement.
“I meant no insult, Miss Tolliver. Just wanted to know why I have been blessed by you wanting to marry me.”
She explained, as if he were the one suffering from a weak brain, “No one, including me, wants to marry the poor youngest son of a wicked family.”
“Agreed! Only my mother is not wicked. You’d like my mother.”
“The duchess won’t like me, not if I am forced to marry you.”
“That’s very true but as I haven’t asked you to marry me, I think we can safely dismiss the notion of us marrying. Unless you intend to ask me?” He almost wished she’d do it.
She carried on with her delusion as if he hadn’t spoken. “If I have to marry you, can Winifred Wellington live with us?”
“If I asked you to marry me, and if you said yes, I suppose it would only be fair to let your donkey live with us.”
Her answering laughter, her blue eyes sparkling delightfully, robbed him of the urge to be rude about her chances of getting a proposal out of him. He found himself shockingly near being smitten. He had always had a fatal fascination for Sylvester’s daughters.
Rupert reminded himself that if he’d met Miss Tolliver at a ball, if she showed up wearing appropriate clothes, hair coiffed, well mannered, no doubt he’d find her as boring as the other sacrificial virgins reserved for heirs, not younger sons. It was the strange way she talked that he found so dangerously enthralling.
As if she read his mind, Miss Tolliver asked in a husky whisper, “If I marry you do I get to sleep with you?” When he hesitated, struck dumb by her question, she said in a low voice, “Promise me, because I won’t sleep in the barn.”
He managed to whisper back, “Not even to be close to your donkey?” He tried not to look interested at the thought of them sharing a bed.
“Don’t make me sleep in the attic with the maids.” She approached closer, to touch his knee. A hot tingle shot up his leg, as it had when he’d taken part in one of the Halyton Horde’s electrifying experiments.
“If we marry, you must promise to let me sleep with you,” she pleaded, in a voice that almost knocked him off his mount. “The barn is not comfortable, it is not safe, and straw is scratchy. Even if you snore, it can’t be worse.”
After she retreated, he got Rufus under control and managed to answer in a bored voice, “Yes, Miss Tolliver, if I am ever foolish enough to marry you, you shall share my bed. If you promise not to murder me in it.”
She tapped her foot on the path. “Idiotical notion! Everyone would know I’d done it. They’d hang me or cut off my head.”
His mount decided to like this strange female and showed it by trying to eat her wreath of flowers.
She protected her property with a gentle wave of denial that Rufus obeyed. She said softly to the horse, “I really don’t want to share his bed.”
Rufus gave a nod of agreement.
She was very like one of his cousin Sylvester’s daughters, easily driving a man mad, half-way between desire and hope, only to cast him into despair. Luckily, he was used to it. “Why don’t you want to, if it means a comfortable bed?”
“You are scary.”
“Not in the least! I swear it.”
“Your brothers are scary and so are you,” she insisted.
“Then we are both happy to know we are not getting married, because you are scarier than me.”
She gave a crow of laughter at his lie. “You need thirty-eight donkeys. Ask for Jacks, they are bigger and can carry more weight.”
“That is worse than marrying you. Thirty-eight Jacks? They’d fight like the blazes!” He had misjudged her. Witless didn’t even begin to describe her. Even as he thought it, he hoped her advice was given to aid him in his predicament. He just didn’t see how hiring donkeys helped him, not when he couldn’t use the road belonging to Farmer Tolliver.
She purred his name, “Rupert, I’m serious.”