Home > Impeccable (The Phoenix Club #7)

Impeccable (The Phoenix Club #7)
Author: Darcy Burke

 

Chapter 1

 

 

Oxfordshire, December 1815

 

 

* * *

 


Evangeline Renshaw could almost imagine she was strolling in the park, as she liked to do at home in London. She was, however, at her brother-in-law’s sprawling new estate. Did her sister Heloise actually live here? Evie could hardly believe it. Or that Heloise was a mother. Or that she was happier than either of them ever dreamed they could be.

And that made Evie happy.

A soft whimper sounded from the hedgerow not far from the dirt track where Evie was walking. She held very still and listened, wondering if she was hearing things that weren’t there. But the sound came again, prompting her to venture onto the damp grass and make her way to the hedgerow.

Crouching down, Evie peered into the shrubbery. “Is someone there?”

A white head poked out, its dark brown eyes fixing on Evie. The animal surveyed her a moment before letting out another gentle whimper.

“Are you caught?” Evie moved closer.

The dog jerked back into the hedgerow, surprising Evie. She lost her balance and fell back on her rump. “Blast,” she muttered.

“Is someone over there?” A low masculine voice called from the other side of the hedgerow.

Evie stared at the shrubbery as if she could see through the thick greenery. “Yes. There is a dog in the hedgerow. I think he—or she—may be stuck.”

“I thought I heard a whimper,” the man said.

“I seem to have frightened it,” Evie said. “It showed me its face, but when I moved too close, it retreated.”

“Let’s see if I can coax him out. Here, doggy,” he cajoled. “Let us help.”

He received another whimper in response.

“Do you see him?” Evie asked, pushing up to her knees and leaning forward.

“I do. He’s very sweet.”

“Or she.”

“Or she,” he said. “How are you, then, little doggy?” the man asked in a surprisingly tender voice. “He—or she—looks young.”

Evie hadn’t noticed, but then her experience with dogs was limited to the ones she’d fed scraps to on the streets of Soho in her youth. “You are familiar with dogs, then?” she asked.

“Somewhat.” His voice changed to that softer lilt. “Can you come out? Or are you stuck in there, poor thing? Let me help,” the man coaxed.

This was met with a yelp and considerable rustling in the hedgerow. The dog’s white face peeked forth once more on Evie’s side, along with the upper half of its body. Evie grabbed its shoulders and held fast, despite the animal’s wriggling. “I’ve got you,” she said softly.

“Don’t let go!” the man called. “I’m coming!”

He was? Rather than look up and down the hedgerow for an opening, Evie kept her gaze fixed on the small dog who was still trying to get loose of her grip. She attempted to pull the animal free, but this was met with a louder whimper than the rest. It seemed he—or she—was stuck.

“Do hurry!” she yelled to the man, wherever he was.

“We’re only trying to help,” she said to the dog. “Will you let us? You’re awfully cute.” Evie brought her face even with the animal’s, perhaps unwisely. What if it tried to bite her? “You won’t nip at me, will you?” she said with a confidence she didn’t quite feel. “We’re going to be friends. In fact, I think we are already.”

The dog stopped struggling so much. Its gaze held hers, then he—or she—let out another whimper. Where was the gentleman?

Evie turned her head to the right and saw him bearing down on them. She didn’t have time to assess him before he was down on his knees in the grass beside her. “It seems stuck,” she told him. “I can’t pull it free.”

“Hold on, and I’ll reach in.” The man tucked his hands into the hedgerow around the dog. “Ah, yes, there. Its foot is stuck in the branches. I can work it free…” He pressed himself against the hedgerow as he worked, allowing Evie a view of his profile. He was white, with pale, narrow brows that drew together over his rich brown eyes as he worked. His strong jaw clenched, pressing his lips together. He was very attractive. And he looked familiar.

Suddenly, the dog vaulted forward, straight into Evie’s chest, sending her off-balance. Because she was on her knees, she fell to the side. She managed, however, to hold the dog close. “I’ve got you,” she murmured.

The dog squirmed, and Evie feared it would run away. “Don’t go,” she pleaded, not yet ready for this unexpected adventure to end.

Was that because of the dog or the gentleman?

The dog! She had no interest in gentlemen, even if they were handsome and vaguely familiar.

“Are you all right?” the man asked.

“Yes, just give us a moment. I think he—or she—is settling down.” Evie kept her gaze locked with the animal’s. “Aren’t you? This isn’t a bad place to be, is it? Certainly better than that nasty old hedgerow.”

“I would say so,” the man responded.

She resisted the urge to look toward him, thinking it was best if she maintained her attention on the dog. Doing so seemed to calm it.

“You’re doing wonderfully,” the man said. “You must have a great deal of experience with dogs. Or animals in general.”

It depended on the type of animal, but she was fairly certain he didn’t mean those of his own species. Those, she knew quite well. “Actually, no. I’ve never had a pet.” Or known anyone with a pet.

“Extraordinary. Well, I’d say you’re naturally inclined. I think you may have a pet now.”

“I can’t have a pet.” She said the words without thinking and immediately hoped the dog didn’t somehow understand and take offense. “But if I did, I would choose you,” she said, smiling at the dog.

The dog tipped its head, then nuzzled her chin. Oh, dear.

“I don’t think the dog agrees that you can’t have a pet.” The man chuckled softly. “Can I help you up?”

She couldn’t lie about in the damp grass. “What do I do with the dog?”

The man edged forward slowly and spoke softly to the dog, whispering encouragement and endearments. It really was quite sweet. Then he stroked the animal and gradually transferred it into his arms. Moving the dog, which did appear to be an older puppy, perhaps, to one arm, he rose, then gave his hand to Evie.

She clasped him, and her gaze immediately riveted to his. He helped her to stand, all while keeping the animal in his grip.

“Well done,” Evie said. “You are quite the hero.”

“No more than you. I am Gregory Blakemore.” He inclined his head, still holding her hand.

Now she knew him—they’d met last Season in London. “Don’t you mean Lord Gregory?”

The man’s father was a marquess. Or had been. Evie recalled that he’d passed away in the spring. Which meant Lord Gregory’s older brother was now the marquess.

“I suppose,” he responded. “Seems unnecessary here, in this moment,” he added. His brows knitted. “Have we met?”

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