Spring 1805, Maidstone Hall, Kent, England
Alex Sinclair’s ears flamed. Not because of the heat of the day or the fight he’d just had with an older boy. His ears went hot because a pretty girl favored him with a smile. A smile worth a dunk in the pond. A smile worth a split lip. A smile worth the beating he would get for brawling with her brother.
Alex waded out of the duck pond, boots and kilt soaked to the waist. He made a courtly bow to the girl, then handed her the treasure he’d rescued, the yellow ball her brother had tossed into the pond.
“It’s a bonnie wee thing,” he said.
The girl tilted her head. “What’s your name, boy?”
“Alexander Sinclair, son of Laird John Sinclair of Balforss.” He wanted to touch her shiny dark curls, but he knew better than to try.
“My name is Lucy. It’s my birthday today. I’m nine years old.”
“My da is a friend of Lord Chatham.”
“Lord Chatham is my papa. That makes us friends, too.” A dimple formed on her smooth cheek.
In that moment, though only eleven years old, he understood what it was to be a man, to attempt the impossible, to risk everything, even death, for a lass’s smile.
He flinched. The tone in his father’s voice held the promise of a tawsing he would not forget.
William Harris, Duke of Chatham, strode shoulder to shoulder with Alex’s father, their tall bodies blocking the sun and casting long shadows on the garden path. The duke’s son George trailed behind, holding his bloody nose with one hand and pointing with the other.
“There he is, Father. There’s the red-haired devil who attacked me.”
Alex probably shouldn’t have hit the boy so hard, even though the numpty had deserved it. He faced his accuser and, to his surprise, Lucy moved to his side—his shield arm—like a fellow warrior. He stood tall, steady. Ready to take his punishment like a man.
His father snaked a long arm out, grabbed him by the collar, and cuffed him.
A satisfied “ha-ha” burst from George’s blood-streaked mouth. The duke cut him off with a slap to the back of his head.
“Go back to the house. Now.” The duke’s tone was low and deadly. The kind of voice only a dafty would ignore.
“But Papa—” George protested.
One hard look from the duke and George ran for the house.
Alex’s father gave him another shake before releasing his collar. “Come along, ye wee gomeril. It’s the back of my sword you’ll get for brawling with His Grace’s son.”
“No. You mustn’t punish him.” Lucy grabbed the duke’s coat and tugged. “Please, Papa. Don’t let him punish Alex. He rescued my ball when George threw it into the pond. He’s my protector, you see.”
Alex hid his smile. Like a knight in a heroic tale, he had won the devotion of a beautiful lass, a prize worth every blow to his backside.
“Is this true, Alex?” the duke asked.
He made himself as tall as he could without standing on his toes. “It’s true, Your Grace. I fished Miss Lucy’s ball from the pond. But George wouldnae stop vexing the lass. I lost my temper and smacked him. For that, I am truly sorry, sir.” He felt his cheeks color. The “sorry” part was a lie.
The tall Englishman and Alex’s father suppressed laughter at what seemed a private joke. He deflated a little. Were they laughing at him?
“The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, John,” the duke said, dabbing at his eyes.
“Aye. His mother is an honest woman,” his father chuckled. “He’s mine. I’ve nae doubt.” He inclined his head toward Lucy. “I’m glad my son could be of service to you.”
The dark-haired lass plucked at her blue skirt and bobbed a curtsy.
“Come with me.” The duke led Alex by the shoulder toward the house. Would His Grace be giving him the tawsing?
The four of them assembled in the study, a room much like his father’s library, but twice as big. The duke removed his ceremonial sword from its place above the mantel and unsheathed the long blade. The mood in the room instantly turned somber.
“Alexander Sinclair, kneel before me.”
Back ramrod straight and shoulders squared, he stepped closer to the duke. The thought crossed his mind that he was about to be executed. He struggled to remain stoic, determined to face death like a man, if need be. Alex did as His Grace commanded, kneeled and bowed his head. Perhaps he should say a last good-bye to his father.
“Alexander Sinclair, son of John Sinclair of Balforss, in recognition of your chivalry, I, William Harris, Duke of Chatham, confer upon you the title of Champion and Protector to my daughter Lucy FitzHarris.” The duke tapped his right then left shoulder with the tip of the sword.
Alex’s cheeks and ears flared.
The duke nodded for him to stand, and he did. He should say something. Something noble. Words worthy of a man.
“You have my solemn oath I shall protect and serve Miss Lucy with my life, Your Grace.”
The duke dropped his formality and slapped him on the shoulder. “Thank you, Alex. I accept your oath.”
Lucy peered from behind a blue-and-gold striped chair, her yellow ball cradled in one arm. He crossed the room to repeat his oath to her, but the lass skittered to her father and hid her face inside his coat. She had been bold before he gave his oath. What made her shy of him now?
He turned to his father, unable to stop himself from grinning like a fool. His father flashed him a brief smile then lifted the dreaded eyebrow. “Dinnae think you’ll escape the tawsing you’re due for brawling.”