I Kissed an Earl (and I Liked It) – Merry Farmer

It was widely known throughout County Antrim, and Ireland in general, that the O’Shea family were wicked, scandalous, and unruly in every way imaginable. Particularly the ladies of the family. Young ladies with the surname O’Shea had been causing trouble and upsetting apple carts for generations. That went double for the untamed sisters of Lord Fergus O’Shea, Earl of Ballymena. All four of them. They were headstrong, opinionated, and a bit too enamored of the freedom their brother allowed them when he was away in England. The sisters had taken up residence in a seaside cottage, where they had the audacity to live independently, in spite of being the daughters of an earl and ladies in their own right. They insisted on cooking their own meals, washing their own laundry, and keeping their own house. It was unspeakably scandalous. When asked, the eldest sister, Lady Shannon O’Shea, would argue that every woman, regardless of her rank, needed to master domestic skills, otherwise they would be completely at the mercy of others. And the O’Shea sisters had no intention of being at the mercy of anyone. Because one never knew which way the wind would blow when it came to the fortunes of the aristocracy, particularly the Ascendancy. So the sisters took their lives and their upkeep into their own hands, flouting convention, scandalizing their neighbors, and generally shocking both high and low with their wildly unusual views of the world and a woman’s place in that. But all that was about to change. “It has come to my attention that I have been remiss in keeping my eye on you,” Fergus said with a frown, addressing his sisters from his wheelchair in the family parlor of Dunegard Castle one summer morning.

“And since I only have one eye left, it’s even more important to use it wisely.” Marie O’Shea felt a wave of intense anger, in spite of her brother’s jovial mood. She would have murdered the English dogs who attacked and nearly killed her brother several years ago, if the main perpetrator hadn’t already been killed. Fergus was still as handsome and wily as the Devil, but he would forever be confined to a wheelchair now, in spite of the efforts of his friend and personal physician, Dr. Linus Townsend, to teach him to walk with crutches, and he’d lost an eye in the attack as well. Although he did look rather roguish wearing an eyepatch. His wife, Lady Henrietta, certainly thought so. She stood by Fergus’s side now, grinning far too much for a woman whose husband was taking his sisters to task. “Therefore,” Fergus went on, “on the advice of the esteemed Lady Coyle here—” he gestured to the stoic, grey-haired lady standing on the other side of his wheelchair—a woman who saw it as her business to oversee the lives of every eligible young lady in the county, “—I have decided to evict you from your seaside home.” “What are you saying?” Shannon said, her expression turning stormy.

“You can’t be serious,” Chloe, the youngest sister, followed, crossing her arms. “I knew something horrible would happen,” Colleen, one of the middle sisters, along with Marie, said with a sigh. “I should have put my foot down years ago,” Fergus went on. His mouth twitched into a wry grin. “That’s a bit of a challenge for me these days as well.” “Fergus, how can you joke at a time like this?” Marie said, stepping forward and planting her hands on her hips. “You’ve never had a problem with the four of us living at the cottage before this. We’ve always just gotten along, minding our own business, not hurting anyone.” Lady Coyle snorted. “Not hurting anyone?” she repeated incredulously.

“What about the emotional distress you have all caused the residents and shopkeepers of Ballymena?” Marie blinked and stared at the woman. “We haven’t done anything to any residents or shopkeepers.” “We do a lively trade with them,” Shannon seconded her. “And more than a few of the pubs in town have appreciated our beer.” “And we will never reveal our secret recipe to a soul,” Chloe said with a sparkle in her eyes. Lady Coyle huffed as though the sisters had insulted her dignity and shook her head. Fergus couldn’t seem to stop grinning, but fought to school his expression all the same. “Surprisingly, several of the residents of Ballymena are unhappy with ladies of the local aristocracy making and selling beer. They aren’t too pleased with the lot of you wading in the sea with your skirts tied up around your waists either.” “Or with the four of you dragging that telescope out in the middle of the night where men on their way home from the pub can see you,” Henrietta added with a grin.

“What do those lecherous pigs care if we have an interest in astrology?” Chloe asked. “Astronomy, dear,” Shannon corrected her. “Oh. Yes,” Chloe said, looking sheepish, as though she had meant what she said. She was a Gemini, after all. “If you ask me, there are quite a few people around here who should be minding their own business,” Marie said, arching one eyebrow at Fergus. They’d done perfectly well with him away in England. As much as she loved her brother, part of her wished he were back there now. “I don’t mind if you all have minds of your own and use them,” Fergus said with a shrug, “but as it turns out, others do.” He shot a sideways glance to Lady Coyle.

“Furthermore, it has been brought to my attention that the lot of you are perilously close to being on the shelf. Shannon, you’re just shy of thirty.” Shannon opened her mouth to protest, but before she could say anything, Lady Coyle hissed, “It’s unconscionable that none of the four of you are married, and at your ages. As I have explained to your brother, there are more than enough men of suitable title and fortune eager to marry the sisters of an earl, no matter how lively they are. The time has come for all of you to wed.” The sisters gaped and snorted in offense, shaking their heads and huffing. “I don’t object to marriage,” Marie said, narrowing her eyes at her brother. “I’d rather like the excuse to have a man in my bed.” Lady Coyle groaned and pinched the bridge of her nose. Marie’s sisters laughed.

“Come to think of it, you’re right there,” Colleen said. “I wouldn’t mind a strapping, virile man at all,” Shannon agreed. “As long as he’s a Leo,” Chloe added. “Or Aquarius. I suppose Aries would do.” “Good. It’s settled, then,” Fergus said, a little too forcefully, as though the sisters had just walked blissfully into a trap. “Pack up your things and bring them back to the castle immediately. I’ll have all your old bedrooms prepared for you.” “Now hold on just a moment,” Colleen led the protests.

“This isn’t fair,” Marie huffed. “We’re perfectly fine at the cottage,” Shannon said. Fergus held up his hands against the onslaught of protest. “Enough of that, now, ladies,” he said, silencing them all. By his side, Henrietta had to hide her mouth in her hand to stifle her laughter. Marie bristled at the gesture, but Fergus went on before she could say anything. “I’m determined to marry you four hellions off,” he said. “And to do that, even though it might kill me, I’m going to have to host gatherings and invite suitable men from respectable families to do things like dine with us.” “Ugh.” Chloe grimaced.

“I despise the word ‘respectable’.” “Yes, I can imagine you do,” Lady Coyle said in a flat voice. Fergus sent her a weary look, then focused on his sisters once more. “You’ll all move back to the castle. We’ll entertain and do all the things an earl and his family should do.” Marie and the others groaned in protest. “But,” Fergus went on, holding up a hand, “because I know how much of a trial this is for you, I have a peace offering.” “What sort of a peace offering?” Shannon asked, one brow raised. “Michael,” Fergus called toward the hallway, summoning his head footman. Michael appeared in the doorway a moment later, as if he’d been waiting around the corner, listening for his cue in a stage production.

He wasn’t alone when he entered the room, though, and he wasn’t empty-handed. Marie gasped and pressed a hand to her stomach as Michael and the other footman, Sean, entered the room, each of them wheeling two bicycles with them. “Dear God above, those aren’t what I think they are,” Colleen said, leaping toward the footmen. “Bicycles,” Chloe squealed, following her. Her expression lit to absolute joy. She immediately snatched one of the newfangled contraptions from Michael and gazed at it, enraptured. “Oh! These are the new safety bicycles Mr. Starley invented. I’ve been reading about them everywhere. They’re becoming all the rage in smart circles.

” “Oh, good heavens,” Lady Coyle groaned as though she might faint. “Lord O’Shea, what have you done?” Marie didn’t wait around for the answer. She and Shannon rushed toward Sean, taking the last two bicycles from him. Marie’s heart raced as she pored over the amazing invention. She’d played with bicycles where one wheel was enormous and the other was small, but both wheels of the machines Fergus had purchased were the same size. They were part of the new design that involved a chain to turn the wheels. The bicycle in her hands was clearly meant for a woman to use, as the chain had a metal covering to prevent skirts from catching in the mechanism. “It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” she gasped, running her hand over the leather seat. “It’s clearly a bribe,” Shannon said, though she couldn’t pull her eyes off her bicycle. “You are correct, dear sister,” Fergus said.

“I am giving each of you one of these machines in exchange for your cooperation in moving back into the castle and marrying men whom I deem suitable.” “You’re not going to pick them out for us, are you?” Colleen said, snapping her head up and narrowing her eyes. “Only if you make it necessary,” Fergus said. “Otherwise, I’m more than willing to take suggestions.” Marie snorted at that, but her heart was still too full of her new plaything to pay much mind to her brother. She wondered how difficult bicycles were to ride. She’d seen illustrations, read instructions, and figured she’d do all right, but there was only one way to tell. “I want to take it for a ride right this very moment,” she said, glancing to her sisters. “So do I,” Chloe gasped with equal excitement. “Go right ahead,” Fergus said.

“Provided you ride those things down to the cottage to pack your belongings and have them sent back to the castle.” The sisters stopped perusing their bicycles and snapped straight. Marie had been right to sense a trap earlier. That trap had closed around her as certainly as if she were a rodent who had just had its neck snapped. “Do we have an agreement?” Fergus asked. “Those bicycles in exchange for your residence at the castle?” The sisters exchanged looks. Marie knew immediately they’d all been had. The problem was, Fergus had chosen exactly the right bait for his trap. “All right,” Marie answered first. “You win this time, dear brother.

I agree to move back into the castle for the purpose of marrying me off. As long as whatever man you find who might be willing to marry me accepts Lucifer along with my hand.” “Lucifer?” Henrietta asked, still having a difficult time not laughing. Marie smiled at her bicycle. “That’s what I’m going to call it.” Her sisters laughed. Lady Coyle looked as though she might faint. “Let’s take them outside and see if we can ride them,” Shannon said, wheeling her bicycle toward the door. “Yes, I’m determined to master this,” Colleen agreed and followed her. They all turned their bicycles around and pushed them toward the hall.

Before leaving, Marie called over her shoulder, “Thank you, Fergus. You’re going to regret this.” “Don’t you mean I’m not going to regret this?” Fergus asked. Marie laughed mischievously. “No, you will absolutely regret it.” Judging by the sound Lady Coyle made as the sisters left, taking their bicycles out to the front drive, she believed Fergus had made an unforgivably grave mistake. It was the perfect day to learn how to ride a bicycle. As soon as the four of them reached the front drive, they leapt into the task. The bicycles were clearly designed for ladies with skirts, though perhaps not as many petticoats as they all wore. Marie solved that problem by hitching up her skirt and removing the frilly petticoat she’d donned when the four of them were called to their audience with Fergus.

She managed to make poor Sean blanch in the process. But immediately she discovered that it was far easier to mount and peddle a bicycle without a copious amount of fabric around her legs. “It’s not as difficult as I thought it would be,” she called to her sisters as she propelled herself forward, making a large circuit of the front drive. “As long as you can keep your balance, the faster you go, the easier it is.” “I’ve heard that about a few other things,” Shannon said with a wicked wink, peddling her bicycle shakily. The others were getting the hang of things, but slowly. Chloe didn’t seem comfortable sitting on the seat. Shannon stopped what she was doing to examine the bicycle to see if there was a way to make the seat lower. Colleen looked as though she could balance, but she wasn’t moving fast enough, and her bicycle kept careening to the side. By contrast, the more Marie rode around in the circle of the drive, the more confident she felt.

“Well, I’m off,” she said with a spritely air as she made a final loop around the drive. “I’ll see you lot back at the cottage.” If her sisters protested over the way she broke free and peddled away from the castle, Marie didn’t hear them. She shot down the long stretch of the drive that led to the front gate and the road, then picked up speed, flying on down the slight incline of the road. It felt very much like flying as well, or what she imagined flying might be like. The wind whipped through her hair, pulling ginger strands out of the careless style she’d pushed it into earlier. She should have been wearing a hat, but she hadn’t bothered to fetch hers before rushing outside with her bicycle, and she was glad for it. There was something magical about speeding along the road, sunlight glowing down on her, the green of the landscape around her meeting the blue of the summer sky. She could smell grass, wildflowers, and the salt of the sea. Sunlight baked her, and the more she peddled, the warmer she became.

Her heart thundered against her ribs with the effort of riding, but she loved every moment of it. If Fergus had given them the bicycles as a peace offering for taking away their freedom, he had the bad end of the bargain. Marie had never felt so free in her life

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