Excerpt from The Last Hellion

The duke, meanwhile, was sizing her up, his green gaze boldly raking her from bonnet to half-boots.

"Big, yes, but not up to my weight," he announced. "I make her at five and three quarter feet. And ten stone, stripped. Which," he added, his glance skimming over her bodice, "I should pay fifty guineas to see, by the way."

Raucous laughter and the usual lewd comments greeted this witticism.

Neither the laughter nor the obscenities disconcerted Lydia. She knew this rough world; she'd spent most of her childhood in it. But the crowd’s noise recalled her to the main issue. The girl she’d set out to rescue stood frozen in place, wearing the hunted expression of one who’d found herself in the jungle, surrounded by cannibals--which was not far off the mark.

Still, Lydia could not let this moron have the last word.

"Oh, that's well done," she told him. "Broaden the child's education, why don't you? Give her a pretty view of London manners--and the high moral tone of the peerage."

She had a great deal more to say, but she reminded herself that she might as well lecture a milestone. If this jackass had ever owned a conscience, it had died of neglect decades ago.

Contenting herself with one last, withering glance at him, she turned away and started toward the girl.

A swift survey of the crowd told Lydia that the bawd had vanished, which was frustrating. Still, it would not have made much difference if she'd stayed, when none of these loudmouthed curs cared for anything but their own entertainment.

"Come, my dear," she said as she approached the girl. "We accomplish nothing amid this rabble."

"Miss Grenville," came the duke's voice from behind her.

Nerves jumping, Lydia whirled round--and came up against a solid column of male. She retreated but half a pace, lifted her chin, and straightened her spine.

Ainswood did not back away, and she held her ground, though it wasn’t easy. She could not quite see past his brawny torso, and at close quarters she was rivetingly aware of the muscular frame his garments hugged so snugly.

"Excellent reflexes," he said. "If you weren't a female, I'd take up your offer--of the stinkers, I mean. That is to say, the black--"

"I know what it means," said Lydia.

“Indeed, it’s all very well to have an extensive vocabulary,” he said. “In the future, however, I recommend you exercise a dash--the smallest sliver--of reason, my dove, before you exercise your tongue. You can manage that, I hope? Because another fellow, you see, might take your adorable little darings and dauntings as an amusing challenge. In which case, you might find yourself in a different sort of tussle than you bargained for. Do you take my meaning, little girl?”

Lydia opened her eyes very wide. "Oh, goodness, no," she said breathlessly. "You are much too deep for me, Your Grace. My tiny brain simply can't take it in."

His green eyes glinted. "Maybe your bonnet's squeezing it too tight." His hands came up to the ribbons and paused, inches away.

"I shouldn't, if I were you," she said, her voice even, her heart ricocheting against her rib cage.

He laughed and tugged at the bonnet strings.

Her fist shot up. He grabbed it, still laughing, and pulled her up against the hard column of his body.

She'd half expected that, sensed what was coming. But she wasn't prepared for the heat or the explosion of sensations she couldn't identify, and these threw her off balance.

In the next instant, her mouth was crushed under his, warm and firm and all too skilled, and she was sinking backward, disoriented and helpless under its deceitfully easy pressure. She was pulsingly aware of his big hand splayed against her upper back, its warmth seeping through stiff layers of bombazine and undergarments, and of more heat lower, where his brawny arm braced her waist.

For one perilous moment, her mind gave way as her muscles did, overpowered by heat and strength and the chaotic brew of masculine scent and taste.

But her instincts had been honed in a hard school, and in the next moment she reacted.

She sagged in his arms, making herself a dead weight.

She felt his mouth leave hers.

"By gad, the wench's faint--"

She slammed her fist into his jaw.