Excerpt from The Irish Duchess

     
     Neville's duties kept him from traveling often. He had never visited Ireland for pleasure. Dusk created dancing shadows he could well imagine peopled by cavorting elven folk.
     The blows to his head must have warped his brain. Glancing toward the setting sun in hopes of seeing civilization, Neville nearly fell from his saddle as a silhouette of a fey creature on horseback flew from the woods, hair streaming in silken lengths behind her.
     Slim limbs and confident hands guided the racing animal over potholes and ruts and into a breathtaking leap over a crumbling rock wall.
     Forgetting headache and weariness, he steered his mount on a connecting path. Perhaps a woman wearing breeches had a liberal view of other things besides attire.
     Her mount nearly collided with his in the shadows of the trees. She reined in, rearing her horse to a halt. "Who the devil are you?" she demanded imperiously.
     Instead of grinning at her brash introduction, Neville scowled at the familiarity of a voice he hadn't heard in years. "Fiona MacDermot! You damned well haven't gained a particle of sense since I saw you last." So much for any brief hopes of pleasure.
     The feminine figure stilled, then recognition dawned. "His bloody majesty, it is! And a fine damned ending to one of the worst days of my life this is. If it's paying for me sins I am to have the likes of you about, then I'll do penance and never sin again." She swung her horse around and started to ride away.
     Realizing she could lead him to Aberdare, Neville grabbed her reins, earning a crack across his gloved hand with her riding crop. He snatched the weapon before she could strike again. "Bigad, I can't believe Blanche wants such a hoydenish creature anywhere near her. What the devil are you wearing?"
     "Why, and it's me finest skirts, I'm sure," she replied mockingly. "Do not the ladies of London know the fashion?"
     Neville had the distinct recollection of his urge to beat her the last time he'd seen Michael's cousin. She had the tongue of a harpy and the soul of a demon. She'd been a skinny nineteen in rags. He couldn't remember her looking like a woodsprite with curves to match the lushness of his surroundings. The only thing that kept him from an unholy state of lust was her stench.
     "What have you been rolling in? A sty?" he asked, ignoring her mockery.
     "Sure, and would your nobleness know what a pig smells like? Let go my reins. I'm going home."
     "So am I, and I'm not letting you out of my sight while I do it. There are brigands in these woods this time of night."
     "Do you need me to protect your precious hide?" she asked with grating innocence. "Sure, and a fine nobleman like yourself might look out for the dirty Irish bastards who'd steal the hair off your head did you let them."
     "Shut up, Fiona, and start moving. I always knew my cousin was dicked in the nob, but now I'm certain she's lost all wit to ask the likes of you into her home. Michael should put a snaffle on you."
     "A snaffle! Damn you for an arrogant..."
     Neville jerked her rein when she tried to twist her horse away. "Stop it, Fiona. Behave like an adult for a change. If you're old enough for a come-out, you're old enough to mind your tongue. I'll not have you embarrassing Blanche."
     "I'll have you know I'm twenty-one and long past the age for a come-out. Lady Aberdare is all that is kind, but I have no such opinion of London society. So you and my brother may return to merry old England without me."
     "I gave my word I'd escort you to London safe and sound, and I have no intention of going back on it," Neville replied grimly.
     The ache in the back of his head pounded in earnest at this reminder of his obligation. He was here on holiday, a break from his duties after the humiliating incident that had left him bleeding in the street. He'd never quite understood why the scoundrels had left him alive. He might have been happier had they not.
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