Griff cracked open a single eyelid. A bright stab of pain told him he’d made a grave mistake. He quickly shut his eyes again and put a hand over them, groaning.
Something had gone horribly wrong.
He needed a shave. He needed a bath. He might need to be sick. Attempts to summon any recollection of the previous evening resulted in another sharp slice of agony.
He tried to ignore the throb in his temples and focused on the tufted, plush surface under his back. It wasn’t his bed. Perhaps not even a bed at all. Was it just a trick of his nausea, or was the damned thing moving?
“Griff.” The voice came to him through a thick, murky haze. It was muffled, but unmistakably female.
God’s knees, Halford. The next time you decide to bed a woman after a months-long drought, at least stay sober enough to remember it afterward.
He cursed his stupidity. The epic duration of his celibacy was no doubt the reason he’d been tempted by … whoever she was. He had no idea of her name or her face. Just a vague impression of a feminine presence nearby. He inhaled and smelled perfume of an indeterminate, expensive sort.
Damn. He’d need jewels to get out of this, no doubt.
Something dull and pointed jabbed his side. “Wake up.”
Did he know that voice? Keeping one hand clapped over his eyes, he fumbled about with the other hand. He caught a handful of heavy silk skirt and skimmed his touch downward until his fingers closed around a stocking-clad ankle. Sighing a little in apology, he rubbed his thumb up and down.
A squawk of feminine outrage assailed his ears. An unyielding object cracked him over the head, but hard. Now to the pounding and throbbing in his skull, he could add ringing.
“Griffin Eliot York. Really.”
Forget the headache and piercing sunlight, he bolted upright—bashing his head again, this time on the low ceiling. Blinking, he confirmed the unthinkable truth. He wasn’t in his bedchamber—or any bedchamber—but in the coach. And the woman seated across from him was all too familiar, with the double strand of rubies at her throat and her elegant sweep of silver hair.
They stared at one another in mutual horror.
She smacked him again with her collapsed parasol. “Wake up.”
“I’m awake, I’m awake.” When she readied another blow, he held up his hands in surrender. “Good God. I may never sleep again.”
Though the air in the coach was oven-warm, he shuddered. Now he most definitely needed a bath.
He peered out the window and saw nothing but vast expanses of rolling green, dappled with cloud-shaped shadows. The coach’s truncated shadow indicated midday.
“Where the devil are we? And why?”
He tried to piece together memories of the previous evening. This was hardly the first time he’d woken in unfamiliar surroundings, head ringing and stomach achurn … but it was the first time in a good long while. He thought he’d put this sort of debauchery behind him. So what had happened?
He hadn’t imbibed more than his usual amount of wine at dinner. By the fish course, however, he seemed to recall the china’s acanthus pattern undulating. Swimming before his eyes.
After that, he recalled … nothing.
Damn. He’d been drugged.
He snapped to alert, bracing his boots on the carriage floorboards.
Whoever his captors were, he must assume they were armed. He was without a blade, without a gun—but he had eager fists, honed reflexes, and a rapidly clearing head. On his own, he would have given himself even chances. But the bastards had taken his mother, too.
“Do not be alarmed,” he told her.
“Oh, I wouldn’t dream of it. Bad for the complexion.” She touched the double strand of rubies at her throat.
Those rubies. They gave him pause.
What shoddy excuse for a kidnapper used the family coach and left the captive wearing several thousand pounds’ worth of jewels?
Devil take it.
“Hm?” His mother raised her eyebrows, all innocence.
“You did this. You put something in my wine at dinner and stuffed me in the carriage.” He pushed a hand through his hair. “My God. I can’t believe you.”
She looked out the window and shrugged. Or rather, she gave the duchess version of a shrug—a motion that didn’t involve anything so common or gauche as the flexing of shoulder muscles, but merely a subtle tilt of the head. “You’d never have come if I asked.”
Griff closed his eyes. Times like these, he supposed he ought to remind himself that a man only had one mother, and his mother only had one son, and she’d carried him in her womb and toiled in labor and so on and so forth. But he did not wish to think about her womb right now—not when he was still trying, desperately, to forget that she possessed ankles.
“Where are we?” he asked.
Sussex. One of the few counties in England where he didn’t claim any property. “And what is the purpose of this urgent errand?”
A faint smile curved her lips. “We’re going to meet your future bride.”
He stared at his mother. Many moments passed before he could manage coherent speech.
“You are a scheming, fiendish woman with entirely too much time at leisure.”
“And you are the eighth Duke of Halford,” she returned. “I know that doesn’t mean much to you. The disgraces at Oxford, the gambling, the years of aimless debauchery … You seem determined to be nothing more than an unfortunate blot on the distinguished Halford legacy. At the very least, start on the next generation while I still have time to mold it. You have a responsibility to—”
“To continue the line.” He closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. “So I’ve been told. Again and again.”
“You’ll be five-and-thirty this year, Griffy.”
“Yes. Which makes me much too old to be called ‘Griffy.’”
“More to the point, I am fifty-eight. I need grandchildren before my decline. It’s not right for two generations of the family to be drooling at the same time.”
“Your decline?” He laughed. “Tell me, Mother, how can I hasten that happy process? Other than offering a firm push.”
Her eyebrow arched in amusement. “Just try it.”
Griff sighed. His mother was … his mother. There was no other woman in England like her, and the rest of the world had better pray God had broken the mold. Like the jewels she delighted in wearing, Judith York was a formidable blend of exterior polish and inner fire.
For most of the year, they led entirely separate lives. They only resided in the same house for these few months of the London season. Apparently, even that was too much.
“I’ve been patient,” she said. “Now I’m desperate. You must marry, and it must be soon. I’ve tried to find the most accomplished young beauties in England to tempt you. And I did, but you ignored them. I finally realized the answer is not quality. It’s quantity.”
“Quantity? Are you taking me to some free-love utopian commune where men are permitted as many wives as they please?”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“I was being hopeful.”
Her lip curled in a delicate scowl. “You’re terrible.”
“Thank you. I work hard at it.”
“So I’ve often lamented. If only you applied the same effort toward … anything else.”
Griff closed his eyes. If there was any conversation more tired and repetitive than the “When will you ever marry?” debate, it was the “You’re a grave disappointment” harangue. Only in this family would it be considered “disappointing” to successfully oversee a vast fortune, six estates, several hundred employees, and thousands of tenants. Impressive, by most standards. But in the Halford line? Not quite enough. Unless a man was reforming Parliament or discovering a new trade route to Patagonia, he just didn’t measure up.
He glanced out the window again. They seemed to be entering a sort of village. He slid open the glass pane and discovered he could smell the sea. A salted-blue freshness mingled with the greener scents of countryside.
“It is a prettyish sort of place,” his mother said. “Very tidy and quiet. I can understand why it’s so popular with the young ladies.”
The coach rolled to a halt in the center of the village, near a wide, pleasant green that ringed a grand medieval church. He peered out the window, gazing in all directions. The place was far too small to be Brighton or …
“Wait a minute.” A vile suspicion formed in his mind.
Surely she hadn’t …
The liveried footman opened the coach door. “Good day, your graces. We’ve reached Spindle Cove.”
When the fancy coach came trundling down the lane, Pauline scarcely gave it a glance. Many a fine carriage had come down that same road, bringing one visitor or another to the village. A holiday in Spindle Cove was said to cure any gently bred lady’s crisis of confidence.
But Pauline wasn’t a gently bred lady, and her trials were more practical in nature. Such as the fact that she’d just stumbled into a murky puddle, splashing her hem with mud.
And that her sister was near tears for the second time that morning.
“The list,” Daniela said. “It’s not here.”
Drat. Pauline knew they didn’t have time to go back to the farm. She was due at the tavern in minutes. This was Saturday—the day of the Spindle Cove ladies’ weekly salon, and the Bull and Blossom’s busiest day of the week. Mr. Fosbury was a fair-minded employer, but he docked wages for tardiness. And Father noticed.
Frantic, Daniela fished in her pocket. Her eyes welled with tears. “It’s not here. It’s not here.”
“Never mind. I remember it.” Shaking the muddy droplets from her skirts, Pauline ticked the items off in her memory. “Dried currants, worsted thread, a bit of sponge. Oh, and powdered alum. Mother needs it for pickling.”
When they entered the Brights’ All Things shop, they found it packed to bursting. While the visiting ladies met for their weekly salon, the villagers purchased their dry goods. Villagers like Mrs. Whittlecombe, a cobwebby old widow who only left her decrepit farmhouse once a week to stock up on comfits and “medicinal” wine. The woman gave them a disdainful sniff as Pauline and Daniela wedged their way into the shop.
Pauline could just make out two flashes of white-blond hair on the other side of the counter. Sally Bright was busy with customers three deep, and her younger brother Rufus ran back and forth from the storeroom.
Fortunately, the Simms sisters had been friends with the Bright family since as far back as any of them could remember. They needn’t wait to be helped.
“Put the eggs away,” Pauline told her sister. “I’ll fetch the sponge and thread from the storeroom. You get the currants and alum. Two measures of currants, one of alum.”
Daniela carefully set the basket of brown speckled eggs on the counter and went to a row of bins. Her lips moved as she scanned for the one labeled currants. Then she frowned with concentration as she sifted the contents into a rolled cone of brown paper.
Once she’d seen her sister settle to the task, Pauline gathered the needed items from the back. When she returned, Daniela was waiting with goods in hand.
“Too much alum,” Pauline said, inspecting. “It was meant to be just one measure.”
“Oh. Oh, no.”
“It’s all right,” she said in a calm voice. “Easily mended. Just put the extra back.”
She hoped her sister didn’t notice the sneering expression on old Mrs. Whittlecombe’s face.
“I don’t know that I can continue to give this shop my custom,” the old woman said. “Allowing half-wits behind the counter.”
Sally Bright gave the woman a flippant smile. “Just tell me when we can stop stocking your laudanum, Mrs. Whittlecombe.”
“That’s a health tonic.”
“Of course it is,” Sally said dryly.
Pauline went to the ledger to record their purchases. She secretly loved this part. She flipped through the pages slowly, taking her time to peruse Sally’s notes and tabulations.
Someday she’d have her own shop, keep her own ledgers. It was a dream she hadn’t shared with anyone—not even her closest friend. Just a promise she recited to herself, when the hours of farm and serving work lay heavy on her shoulders.
She found the correct page. After the credit they earned from bringing in eggs, they only owed sixpence for the rest of their shopping. Good.
She whipped her head up, startled.
“Good gracious, child! What on earth are you doing?” Mrs. Whittlecombe slapped the counter again.
“I … I’m p-puttin’ back the alum,” Daniela stammered.
“That’s not ‘da aw-wum,’” the old woman repeated, mocking Daniela’s thick speech. “That’s the sugar.”
Oh, bollocks. Pauline winced. She knew she should have done it herself. But she’d wanted so fiercely for Daniela to show that wretched old bat she could do it.
Now the wretched old bat cackled in triumph.
Confused, Daniela smiled and tried to laugh along.
Pauline’s heart broke for her sister. They were only a year apart in age, but so many more in understanding. Of all the things that came a bit more difficult for Daniela than other people—pronouncing words that ended in consonants, subtracting from numbers greater than ten—cruelty seemed the hardest concept for her to grasp. A mercy, in Amos Simms’s family.
“Not the clayed sugar,” Rufus Bright moaned.
Sally boxed him across the ear.
“I just scraped it from the cone,” he apologized, rubbing the side of his head. “Bin was almost full.”
“Well, it’s entirely useless now,” said Mrs. Whittlecombe smugly.
“I’ll pay for the sugar,” Pauline said. She felt instantly nauseous, as if she’d swallowed five pounds of the stuff raw. Fine white sugar came dear.
“You don’t have to do that,” Sally said in a low voice. “We’re practically sisters. We should be real sisters, if my brother Errol had any sense in his head.”
Pauline shook her head. She’d ceased pining for Errol Bright when they parted ways years ago. She certainly didn’t want to be indebted to him now.
“I’ll pay for it,” she insisted. “It was my mistake. I should have done it myself, but I was in a hurry.”
And now she would certainly be late for her post at the Bull and Blossom. This day only grew worse and worse.
Sally looked pained, caught between the need to turn a profit and the desire to help a friend.
In the corner, Daniela had finally realized the consequences of her error. “I can put it back,” she said, scooping from the sugar barrel and dumping it into the alum, muddling both quantities with her flowing tears. “I can put it right.”
“It’s all right, dear.” Pauline went to her side and gently removed the tin scoop from her sister’s hand. “Go on,” she told Sally firmly. “I think I have some credit in the ledger.”
She didn’t just think she had credit. She knew she did. Several pages beyond the Simms family account, there was a page labeled simply pauline—and it showed precisely two pounds, four shillings, and eight pence of credit accrued. For the past few years, she’d saved and scrimped every penny she could, trusting Sally’s ledger with the safekeeping. It was the closest thing to a bank account a serving girl like her could have.
Almost a year, she’d been saving. Saving for something better, for her and Daniela both. Saving for someday.
“Do it,” she said.
With a few strokes of Sally’s quill, the money was almost entirely gone. Eleven shillings, eight pence left.
“I didn’t charge for the alum,” Sally murmured.
“Thank you.” Small comfort, but it was something. “Rufus, would you kindly walk my sister home? I’m due at the tavern, and she’s upset.”
Rufus, apparently ashamed of his earlier behavior, offered his arm. “’Course I will. Come along, Danny. I’ll drive you in the cart.”
When Daniela resisted, Pauline hugged her and whispered, “You go home, and tonight I’ll bring your penny.”
The promise brightened Daniela’s face. It was her daily task to gather the eggs, count and candle them, and prepare them to sell. In return, Pauline gave her a penny a week.
Every Saturday evening she watched Daniela carefully add the coin to an old, battered tea tin. She would shake the tin and grin, satisfied with the rattling sound. It was a ritual that pleased them both. The next morning the same treasured penny went into the church offering—every Sunday, without fail.
“Go on, then.” She sent her sister off with a smile she didn’t quite feel.
Once Rufus and Daniela had left, Mrs. Whittlecombe crowed with satisfaction. “That’ll be a lesson for you, bringing a simpleton around the village.”
“Go easy, Mrs. Whittlecombe,” a bystander said. “You know they mean well.”
Pauline flinched inwardly. Not that phrase. She’d heard it countless times over the course of her life. Always in that same pitying tone, usually accompanied by a clucking tongue: Can’t be hard on those Simms girls … you know they mean well.
In other words, no one expected them to do a cursed thing right. How could they? Two unwanted daughters in a family with no sons. One simple-minded, the other lacking in every feminine grace.
Just once, Pauline wanted to be known not for meaning well, but for doing well.
That day wouldn’t be today. Not only had everything gone wrong, but as she regarded Mrs. Whittlecombe, Pauline couldn’t muster any good intentions. Anger bloomed in her chest like a predatory vine, all sharp needles and grasping tendrils.
The old woman placed two bottles of tonic in her netted bag. They clinked together in a way that only increased Pauline’s anger. “Next time, keep the fool thing at home.”
Her hands balled into tight fists at her side. Of course she wouldn’t lash out at an old woman the way she’d once fought the teasing boys at school, but the motion was instinctive. “Daniela is not a thing. She is a person.”
“She’s a half-wit. She doesn’t belong out of the house.”
“She made a mistake. Just like all people make mistakes.” Pauline reached for the bin of ruined white sugar. It was hers now, wasn’t it? She’d paid for the contents. “For example, everyone knows I’m incurably clumsy.”
“Pauline,” Sally warned. “Please don’t.”
Too late. With an angry heave, she launched the bin’s contents into the air.
The room exploded in a blizzard of white, and Mrs. Whittlecombe was at the storm’s dead center, sputtering and cursing through a cloud of powder. When the flurries cleared, she looked like Lot’s wife, only turned to a pillar of sugar rather than salt.
The sense of divine retribution that settled on Pauline … it was almost worth all that hard-earned money.
She tossed the empty bin to the floor. “Oh, dear. How stupid of me.”
Griff regarded his mother and that smug smile curving her lips. This time she’d gone too far. This wasn’t mere meddling. It was diabolical.
Not Spinster Cove.
He’d never visited the place, but he knew it well by reputation. This seaside hamlet was where old maids went to embroider and consumptives went to dry.
Accepting the footman’s hand, the duchess alighted from the coach. “I understand this place is just bursting with well-bred, unmarried young ladies.”
She motioned toward a lodging house. A sign dangling above the entrance announced it as the queen’s ruby.
Griff blinked at the green shutters and cheery window boxes stuffed with geraniums. He’d rather bathe in water teeming with sharks.
He turned and walked in the opposite direction.
“Where are you going?” she asked, following.
“There.” He nodded at a tavern across the square. By squinting at the sign hung over the red-painted door, he discerned it was called the Bull and Blossom. “I’m going to have a pint of ale and something to eat.”
“What about me?”
He gestured expansively. “Make yourself comfortable. Take a suite at the rooming house. Enjoy the healthful sea breezes. I’ll send the coach for you in a few weeks.” He added under his breath, “Or years.”
The footman followed a respectful pace behind, holding the open parasol to shade the duchess.
“Absolutely not,” she said. “You’re going to select a bride, and you’re going to do it today.”
“Don’t you understand what sort of young ladies are sent to this village? The unmarriageable ones.”
“Exactly. It’s perfect. None of them will turn you down.”
Her words drew Griff to a sharp halt. He swiveled to face her. “Turn me down?”
For the obvious reasons, he avoided discussing his affaires with her. But the reason he’d been celibate lo these many months had nothing to do with women turning him down. There were many women—beautiful, sophisticated, sensual women—who’d gladly welcome him to their beds this very evening. He was tempted to tell her so, but a man couldn’t say such things to his own mother.
She seemed to interpret his silence easily enough.
“I’m not speaking of carnality. I’m speaking of your desirability as a husband. Your reputation leaves a great deal to be desired.” She brushed some dust from his sleeve. “Then there’s the aging problem.”
“The ‘aging’ problem?” He was thirty-four. By his estimation, his cock had a good three decades of working order ahead, at least.
“To be sure, you’re good-looking enough. But there are handsomer.”
“Are you sure you’re my mother?”
She turned and walked on. “The fact is, most ladies of the ton have given you up as a marriage prospect. A village of desperate spinsters is precisely what we need. You must admit, this worked nicely for that scampish friend of yours, Lord Payne.”
God’s knees. So that’s what was behind this. Curse that rogue Colin Sandhurst and his bespectacled, bookish bride. Last year, his old gambling friend had been sequestered in this seaside village without funds, and he’d broken free by eloping with a bluestocking. The pair had even stopped at Winterset Grange, Griff’s country retreat, on their way to Scotland.
But their situations were completely different. Griff wasn’t desperate for funds in any way. Neither was he desperate for companionship.
Marriage simply wasn’t in the cards for him.
His mother fixed him with a look. “Were you waiting to fall in love?”
“It’s a simple question. Have you delayed marriage all these years because you’re waiting to fall in love?”
A simple question, she called it. The answers were anything but.
He could have taken her into the tavern, ordered a few large glasses of wine, and taken an hour or two to explain everything. That he wouldn’t be marrying this season, or any season. Her only son would not be merely a blot on the distinguished Halford line, but the very end of it, forever, and the family legacy she held so dear was destined for obscurity. Her hopes of grandchildren would come to naught.
But he couldn’t bring himself to do it. Not even today, when she was at her most infuriating. Better to remain a dissolute-yet-redeemable rascal in her eyes than be the son who calmly, irrevocably, broke his mother’s heart.
“No,” he told her honestly. “I’m not waiting to fall in love.”
“Well, that’s convenient. We can settle this in one morning. Never mind finding the most polished young beauty in England. You choose a girl—any girl—and I’ll polish her myself. Who could better prepare the future Duchess of Halford than the current Duchess of Halford?”
They’d reached the tavern entrance. His mother stared pointedly at the door latch. The footman jumped to open it.
“Oh, look,” she said upon entering. “What luck. Here they are.”
Griff looked. The scene was even ghastlier than he could have imagined.
This tavern didn’t seem to be a “tavern” at all, but more of a tea shop. Young ladies crowded the establishment, all of them hunched over tables and frowning in concentration. They appeared to be engaged in one of those absurd handicrafts that passed for female “accomplishment” these days. Quilling paper, it looked like. They weren’t even using fresh parchment—just ripping pages straight from books to fashion their queer little trivets and tea trays.
He peered at the nearest stack of volumes. Mrs. Worthington’s Wisdom for Young Ladies, each one read. Appalling.
This was everything he’d been avoiding for years. A roomful of unmarried, uninspiring young women, from which the common wisdom would argue he should find a suitable bride.
At the nudging of a friend, one young woman rose from her chair and curtsied. “May we help you, ma’am?”
The young woman’s brow creased. “Ma’am?”
“I am the Duchess of Halford. You would properly address me as ‘your grace.’”
“Ah. I see.” As her nudging friend smothered a nervous giggle, the fair-haired young woman began again. “May we help you, your grace?”
“Just stand tall, girl. So my son can see you.” She turned her head, surveying the rest of the room. “All of you, on your feet. Best posture.”
Pain forked through Griff’s skull as chair legs screeched against floorboards. One by one the young ladies obediently rose to their feet.
He noted a few pockmarks. One case of crooked teeth. They were none of them hideous, just—fragile in cases. Others were unfashionably browned from the sun.
“Well,” the duchess said, striding into the center of the room. “Jewels in the rough. In some cases, very rough. But they are all from good family, so with a bit of polish … ” She turned to him. “Take your choice, Halford. Select any girl who strikes your fancy. I will make her into a duchess.”
Every jaw in the room dropped.
Every jaw, that was, except Griff’s.
He massaged his throbbing temples and began preparing a little speech in his mind. Ladies, I beg you. Pay this raving madwoman no attention. She’s entered her decline.
But then, he thought—a quick exit was too kind to her. Surely the only proper punishment was the opposite: to do precisely as his mother asked.
He said, “You claim you can make any one of these girls into a suitable duchess.”
“Of course I can.”
“And who will be the judge of your success?”
She lifted a brow. “Society, of course. Choose your young lady, and she’ll be the toast of London by season’s end.”
“The toast of London, you say?” He gave a doubtful laugh.
He scanned the tavern for a second time, planning to declare mad, instantaneous love for the most shrinking, awkward, homely chit available—and then watch his mother sputter and flail in response.
However, from the amused glances the young ladies exchanged, Griff could sense that there was more courage and wit in the room than his first impression might have indicated. These young women were no fools. And though they each had their flaws and imperfections—who didn’t?—none were unsuitable to a shocking, insurmountable degree.
Damn. He’d looked forward to teaching his overstepping mother a lesson. As matters stood, he supposed he’d be better served to just mutter a few apologies, drag the duchess back to the carriage, and drop her at Bedlam on the way home.
And then, with a creak of hinges and a slam of the rear door—
His salvation arrived.
She came stumbling through the back entrance of the tavern, red-faced and breathless. Her boots and hem were spattered with alarming amounts of mud, and a strange white powder clung to her everywhere else.
A serving girl’s apron hung loose around her neck. As she gathered the tapes and knotted them behind her back, the cinch of laces revealed a slender, almost boyish figure. Less of a shapely hourglass, more of a sturdy hitching post.
“It’s ten past, Pauline.” The male voice boomed from the kitchen.
She called back, “Beggin’ pardon, Mr. Fosbury. I’ll not be tardy again.”
Her diction and accent were not merely uneducated and rural—they were odd. When she turned, Griff could make out the reason why. She had a hairpin clenched in her teeth like a cheroot, and she mumbled her words around it.
The tardy serving girl clutched another hairpin in her hand, and when her eyes—leaf-green, bright with intelligence—met Griff’s, she froze in the act of jamming that pin through the tangle of hair piled atop her head.
God, that hair. He’d heard ladies describe their coiffures as “knots” or “buns.” This could only be called a “nest.” He was certain he glimpsed a few blades of straw and grass in there.
Clearly, she’d been hoping to enter unnoticed. Instead, she was suddenly the center of attention. That mysterious white powder that clung to her … it caught the light, shooting off tiny sparks.
He couldn’t look away.
As the breathless young woman alternated glances between Griff, his mother, and the amused ladies filling the rest of the room, her unfinished coiffure disintegrated. Locks of unpinned hair tumbled to her shoulders, surrendering to gravity or indignity, or both.
This would be where the average serving girl would duck her head, flee the room, and await her employer’s wrath. No doubt there’d be sniffling or sobbing involved.
But not this serving girl, apparently. This one had just enough pride to trump etiquette and good sense.
With a defiant toss of her head to distribute her brandy-colored locks, she turned and spat the last hairpin aside.
“Bollocks,” he heard her mutter.
Suddenly, Griff found himself battling a grin. She was perfect. Coarse, uneducated, utterly graceless. A touch too pretty. A plainer girl would have better suited his purpose. But fair looks notwithstanding, she’d do.
“Her,” he said. “I’ll take her.”