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Baldwyn Sinclair, the Duke of Paisley, returns to London in the dead of winter at the request of his overbearing grandmother to find she has forged a betrothal contract on his behalf... without his knowledge. Now he is to be married to none other than the girl who used to throw mud at him in order to gain his attention
He is not happy about the prospect, but he is nothing if not devoted to duty.
Anastasia Trent has been in love with the Duke of Paisley since she was seven years old and has spent her life pining for him, fantasizing about the moment they would see each other again. But when he makes it clear that her imaginings are in vain, her disappointment drives her into the arms of a dangerous man.
It is up to Baldwyn to rescue her once again, to save her from herself, and to find perhaps, along the way, exactly what his own heart was searching for.
The mourning call of the turtledove echoed across the field, muffled only by the rustling of the nearby trees in the mild summer breeze. From the far side, a lone figure, a boy no older than one and six, carried a musket at the ready, wading through the tall field grass with a slow, deliberate gait. His gaze scoured the land all around him. The crack of a twig brought him swinging around to take aim at the disturbance, but his sudden movement startled the prey, sending it scurrying back into the cover of the nearby thicket.
He shook his head and turned in the opposite direction, following his original path. His bright copper hair danced in the light gust sweeping the field as he traipsed forward once again, musket at the ready.
A piercing scream mingled with the call of the turtledoves, startling the hunter and the wildlife. There was an instant rush in the trees as birds took to wing. The boy craned his neck in the direction of the unearthly wail. It seemed to come from beyond the line of trees.
Somewhere in the blur of thick foliage, he seemed to catch sight of something he wasn’t expecting. Patches of bright blue interspersed among the leaves high in a tree glittered in the sunlight.
Tiptoeing forward, he made his way through the field to stand directly under the giant oak. He slung his musket over his shoulder, crossed his arms, and gazed up into the branches at the offending apparition.
“Young Miss Trent, I presume?”
Her only response was a pitiful whimper. She gazed down on him with wide brown eyes which glistened with fresh tears.
“Are you stuck?” he asked.
After a moment of hesitation, she answered with a loud sniffle. “Yes.”
“Then I shall rescue you, fair damsel,” he announced, sweeping low into a grand bow. He removed his musket sling and game satchel and leaned them against the base of a nearby elm. Without further ado, he reached for the lowest branch and hoisted himself up, crawling higher and higher until he reached her side.
“Alas, fair lady, your knight has arrived.” His most dazzling smile comforted the frightened girl. “However did you come to be imprisoned here in this tower, Princess?”
“My foot is stuck.”
“I see. This is a grave situation indeed. May I?” He gestured to her slipper. Her mousy brown pigtails bounced when she nodded her assent.
With a gentle twist, the boy freed her foot from its confinement. He lifted her into his arms and started back down the tree.
Once safe on the ground, he set the little girl on her feet and knelt on one knee to examine her face-to-face.
“Are you well, Princess?”
She bobbed her head again and threw her arms around his neck.
“There now, Princess,” he said, patting her gently on the back. “All is well.”
As if she remembered her part in the farce, she released him and stepped back with a coy smile and a sweet curtsy. “Thank you, Sir Knight, for rescuing me.”
“At your service, my lady,” he said, rising to his feet and bowing at the waist. “‘Tis my sworn duty to protect a lady of the realm.”
She giggled. Her eyes shone bright with joy in their little game.
“Are you hungry, Princess?” He picked up his hunting satchel and reached inside it, fishing out a shiny red apple and a hard biscuit.
The little girl smiled wide, showing a gap where her two front teeth used to be.
“Oh, dear. I suppose the apple is out of the question then,” the boy said with a wink. “Unless…” he paused thoughtfully, then reached a hand into his bag once more, retrieving a small hunting knife with triumphant flair. “Ta-da!”
She clapped and shrieked with laughter.
Her enthusiastic nod sent him straight to work peeling and slicing the fruit into crisp slivers.
They sat under the tree together. He handed the juicy slices to her one at a time, and she munched on them happily. “Thank you, Sir Knight!”
“You, my dear princess, may call me Baldwyn.”
“Baldwyn,” she tried it out, chasing it with a short burst of bubbly little girl laughter.
“There now. Isn’t this much better than being stuck up in that old tree?”
“Whatever were you doing up there anyway?”
“I was looking for the nest.”
“The turtledoves. Papa says they make their nests out here in the spring and fly away in the fall.”
“That’s true. They do like it out here in the fields.”
“I heard them crying. I thought maybe they needed help.”
“Ah, yes. They do sound terribly sad, don’t they?”
“Yes. Like they’ve lost their true love.”
The boy chuckled. “I suppose that’s exactly how they sound.” He handed her another sliver of apple. “That sad cry is the sound they make when they call to their mates. Turtledove pairs don’t like to be apart. So they call to each other, reminding each other where they truly belong.”
She sat silent for a moment, staring at the piece of apple in her hand. “Sometimes I awake at night and hear that sound.” Her voice lowered to a confidential whisper. “Once I followed it to my father’s chamber door.” Her big brown eyes lifted to meet his sparkling blue gaze. “Do you think he cries like that because Mama was his turtledove?”
The boy’s eyes glistened as he blinked back at her. “That might be,” he whispered finally. They held their peace for a moment, listening to the mournful cry of the turtledoves dodging through the canopy of branches overhead.
Finally, the boy stood and brushed off his breeches. He reached for his musket and satchel and slung them each over his shoulders. He offered a hand to the child who still sat at the base of the giant oak. When she grasped it, he helped her to her feet, then proffered his elbow. “May I see you home, Princess?”
“I’d be delighted, Sir Knight.” Her smile was cheery and bright once more as she rested her tiny fingers on his forearm like the perfect little medieval lady, and the two of them made their way back across the field to the estate house, laughing and joking as they went.