When a Duchess Says I Do - Grace Burrowes

Chapter One

The rabbit’s heaving sides testified to a battle lost, a soul surrendering to death.

Duncan Wentworth remained amid the trees, studying the creature where it lay at the edge of the clearing, a strip of thin leather noosed around a furry back foot. The little beast had been caught on a game run between Brightwell’s home wood and the river, where sunny banks were still green with the last of the fall grass.

The rabbit twitched at a disturbance from the direction of the village, though the snare made flight impossible. Even struggling against captivity might result in a permanent injury, so delicate were the creature’s bones.

A stout, bareheaded fellow in rough garb emerged into the clearing.

“Now aren’t you a fine, fat coney,” the man muttered. “Just the right size to fill up a goodwife’s stewpot.”

A poacher, the bane of every English landowner, and not a poacher on the verge of starvation.

“I told Jeffrey the bunnies love their clover, didn’t I?” he went on. “Too bad for you, little varmint.” He knelt by the rabbit, a serious length of knife gleaming in his hand. “Say your prayers, stupid beast, for you’ve had your last meal. Off to market with you, or my name’s not Herman Treacher.”

Duncan stepped into the clearing. “A moment, if you please, Mr. Treacher.”

Treacher heaved to his feet, the knife held before his ample gut. “You’re on private property, sir, and sneaking up on an armed man is never smart.”

He was faster than he looked, and he clearly knew to watch Duncan’s hands. A career thug, then, rather than a countryman supplementing his means through crime.

Duncan took up a lean against the nearest sapling, an oak struggling to find sunlight amid the mature specimens. The rabbit had been too desperate for nourishment to sense a trap. Tomorrow, a hound or a fox might put an end to such an unwary creature.

Nevertheless, these were Duncan’s woods. He’d sought their tranquility as an antidote to months of posturing among London’s good society. That Treacher would foil Duncan’s plan was the last straw on the back of a camel noted for surliness on a good day.

“As it happens,” Duncan said, “we’re both on private property, though only one of us is trespassing.”

Treacher tossed the knife from hand to hand, a rudimentary distraction Duncan knew better than to watch.

“I’m the one holding the weapon, guv. I’d say that makes you the uninvited guest at the party. Run along, and I’ll be about my business.”

Not bloody likely. Poaching in a forest was a capital offense. If Treacher had any sense, he’d dispatch the witness before finishing off the rabbit.

Alas for Treacher, that scheme did not fit with Duncan’s plans.

The rabbit growled, a sound Duncan hadn’t heard since his youth. Treacher was startled into focusing on his prey for the single instant necessary for Duncan to kick the knife free and tackle the blighter.

Duncan lacked his opponent’s brawn, but he’d spent years brawling as only a minister’s wayward charge could brawl. He had Treacher facedown in the clearing, a beefy arm hiked halfway up his back, when a sharp point prodded Duncan between his shoulder blades.

“Let him up, your worship, and I might allow you to live. Insist on more foolishness, and yon coney won’t be the only one going to his reward today.”

Well, of course. The senior officer had arrived, and Duncan’s failure to anticipate that development meant he deserved the bother of defending his rabbit against two criminals.

He’d been too ready to use his fists, too ready to take out his frustrations on any willing fool. Without easing the pressure on Treacher’s arm, Duncan glanced over his shoulder. Assailant number two was smaller and in possession of an equally shiny, sharp knife. The larger knife lay two feet to Duncan’s left—convenient, because he was left-handed—and could easily be collected as Duncan got to his feet.

The rabbit remained caught, a careless animal, but possessed of enough self-respect to growl at a bad fate. So too, would Duncan give these imbeciles a better fight than they were expecting.

“Get him off me, Jeffy. Bastard’s about to break me arm.”

Not break, dislocate. The challenge was to achieve that aim, grab the knife, rise, turn, and deal with Jeffrey all without stepping on the rabbit. First, Duncan would affect the posture of a man defeated and in fear for his life. Second, he’d—

“Drop the knife.” This voice was feminine, annoyed, and a surprise.

“Says who?” Jeffrey asked.

“A woman holding a gun,” Duncan replied. “And from the look in her