The Nine Lives of Lord Knightly – Dayna Quince

Willa escaped the house, wiping a bit of baby slobber from her cheek with her sleeve. It had begun to rain but spring was making a valiant effort to burst forth. Willa picked up her skirts, her destination unknown. She couldn’t stay inside a moment longer with her sisters pecking at her like hungry hens, and she a trough full of corn. What was it about motherhood that made them so feverishly interested in her life? Now that they had their own children, one would think they would fuss over her less. But no. They didn’t use to treat her like this, like an errant child. They were smothering her. The only one who had any sense was Josie. Tomorrow, Josie would return to London and the children of St. Arthur’s Orphanage where she and her husband, the Earl of Selhorst, gave much of their time and wealth as generous benefactors. A task that kept Josie rather busy, leaving Willa to enjoy her independence. But her other sisters, all seven of them, were not so lenient. Thankfully, Jeannie, having just delivered her second child, was too tired to notice Willa’s absence. Willa pulled the hood of her petticoat over her hair to keep her head dry and took shelter under the overhanging branches of a willow.

The gentle patter of the rain turned to a steady drum on the gravel path. She sighed. She was stuck here, but that was better than being stuck inside the house, exhausted by question after question about the gentlemen she’s met, danced with, and might presume to be in love with. Willa rubbed her hands together, admiring her warm soft kid gloves. One of many pairs, now that she and her sisters were no longer destitute. Two years ago, in a miraculous about-face, her sisters had gone from desperate spinsters on the verge of poverty to wives of wealthy gentlemen. At this moment, Odette was excavating Druid ruins on the famed Floki Islands with her husband. Annette and Bernadette were back in Northumberland with their children, and tomorrow she and her parents would leave, but in separate directions. Her parents would return home to Northumberland, and Willa to London with Georgie. Or so they all believed.

Georgie would think Willa was returning with Josie, and Josie would think Willa was returning with Georgie after a brief stop at Meadowlark, Georgie’s new sanctuary for animals. Which would give Willa the perfect opportunity to prove once and for all that she didn’t need their hovering. She’d never needed it, and she would prove that by making the journey back to London by herself. Was it risky? Yes. Scandalous? Most definitely. But she was going to do it anyway. She heard the crunch of boots on the gravel and slid farther into the shadows of the tree, watching the path. A gentleman strode by, doffing his hat and shaking rain from the rim before putting it back on. Willa smiled. She reached through the curtain of leaves and touched his arm.

He jumped in surprise. “What the devil.” Willa giggled. “I beg your pardon,” he said. “You need not beg my pardon. Come in here out of the rain. Take shelter with me.” Wesley’s jaw worked with indecision. But then he stepped through and joined her in the shadows of the willow. “And just what are you doing here, Mr.

Parker?” Willa teased. Wesley always looked uncomfortable when they were alone. He could be stodgy, but he was also her dearest friend. And the only reasonable person she’d met in London. He also happened to be neighbors with Jeanette and her husband, Lord Luckfeld. He took off his hat and shook it again. “What are you doing out here?” “I’m avoiding my sisters and mother. I’m avoiding all of them,” she admitted. “They are only looking out for you,” he replied. “They are smothering me.

I don’t need looking out for. I’m not a child. I’m nineteen. I’ve had one whole season, and I’m about to start another. They weren’t this protective when we were the poor, Northumberland Nine.” “But now you’re not poor. You have a large dowry, and London is a lot different from Northumberland.” “How would you know? You’ve never been.” He smiled wryly. “You’ve talked about your home so much it feels like I have.

However, I can see why they are so worried about you.” He reached up and pushed her hood back. “You are a beautiful young woman with money. That makes you a target for fortune hunters.” “Even with eight sisters and their eight husbands?” “Even so, you’re hard to resist, Willa.” Willa rolled her eyes. She might blush, almost, if the compliments weren’t being given by a dear friend. She wasn’t completely immune to him. Wesley had roguish curly brown hair and a quick smile that made him easy to stare at. He’d be the most eligible bachelor if he had a higher title to inherit.

In her first season, Willa had learned that above all else, the haute ton favored status above wit and charm. Wesley had evaded the marriage mart, but how much longer would that last? He was… Willa thought back to his last birthday, nine and twenty now, ten years her senior. And yet they got along so well. They could be the same age. Willa didn’t care if he was only a baronet’s son. He was kind and sweet, and always knew how to make her laugh. He had the most honest brown eyes she’d ever seen on a person, and right now they studied her—reading her as it were, but he was never able to guess her thoughts. She grinned at him. “When you look at me like that—” Her smile widened as he grew flustered. “I’m just looking at you.

We are conversing, and when two people converse, they look at each other. It’s rude not to.” “God forbid you be rude, Wesley.” He scoffed. “I have my moments, like any man. How long do you intend to avoid your sisters? I came here to speak with Lord Luckfeld, who I presume is busy with his wife and new child.” “He is. I think they’re sleeping,” Willa said. “At midday? I wanted to congratulate them.” “There’s always dinner.

They have to wake and eat sometime, just like the baby,” Willa said. Wesley tugged at his cravat. He always did that when he was nervous. “What is the matter?” “Nothing,” he replied. “You’re anxious. I can tell.” The notch in his throat bobbed up and down. “No, I’m not.” Willa narrowed her eyes at him. “You are a terrible liar.

Did you know that?” He scoffed again. “I have no reason to lie.” Another lie, Willa mused to herself. “Would you like to come inside? You did ride all this way,” she teased him. “How are your parents and sisters this afternoon?” “Very well, thank you. They are preparing to return to London tomorrow.” “As am I,” Willa said. “Who are you returning with?” Willa chewed her lip. Should she tell him her plan? He won’t approve, but she was bursting to tell someone. “Can I tell you a secret, Wesley?” she whispered, though she didn’t need to.

There was no one around to hear them. He raised a brow. “We’ve never shared secrets before. We’ve been friends for going on… How long now since we first met?” He swallowed again. Was he blushing? She could see color creeping up his neck. Why was he blushing? It was a simple question. “I first saw you here when our families had dinner together. I believe it was your first day here before your first season,” he replied. “Yes, I remember now. Luc’s brother and sister had just returned from school for special visits.

That seems so long ago.” “You were wearing a green silk gown,” he said, “and it was rather enchanting how it shimmered in the light.” Willa blinked. “You remember the dress I was wearing?” He gazed at her with something like embers in his eyes. Maybe it was a trick of the light. Heat washed over her skin, and she sucked in a breath. What was that? She’d never felt anything like that before, not with Wesley, not with any man. He was her friend. “You left quite an impression. I will say that,” he said.

Willa didn’t ask any more. She felt off-balance, as if she stood on sand and it shifted beneath her feet. What had she been saying? What had he been saying? “I forgot what we were talking about,” she said. “Your return to London. Are you going straight there, or will you stop and see more of your family?” “Straight there,” she said. Should she tell him? For some reason she wanted to. Even though she just knew he would disagree with her plans. The urge wouldn’t go away. “My family thinks I’m going back with Georgie, but Georgie thinks I’m going back with Josie.” “You leave tomorrow, don’t you?” “Yes, but… I intend to travel back alone.

” His brow furrowed. “Alone? You can’t mean you intend to travel by yourself. That isn’t safe.” “It’s perfectly safe for women to travel alone. I see it all the time.” “Those women don’t look like you,” he returned. “You mean like daughters of gentlemen or a person of wealth?” “Either. I return to my first point. Those women don’t look like you. Why would you want to do that?” he asked.

“To prove that I can, of course. My sisters and parents never hovered over me like this. They treated me like an adult, like I had a brain of my own and could make my own decisions, but now they want to tell me what to wear, how to do my hair, where to go, what to say, what to think, how to act. I’m not a heathen. I know how to behave. I understand that our circumstances have changed a great deal, but I didn’t suddenly become incapable of taking care of myself just because I have a new wardrobe. I am perhaps more prepared than any of them. I had a season. I know what society expects of me but this level of”—she fisted her hands at her sides—“confinement is maddening. I’ll prove to them how ridiculous they are being by making the four-day journey on my own.

” “How are you going to do that? Hire a private carriage?” “No, I’m going to do it just like any other person, by stagecoach. It’s quick and efficient. I’ve planned every step of the journey and allocated the necessary funds for my room each night.” “God above, you’re going to stay in an inn alone? You can’t be this naïve.” “I will have a disguise. No one will bother a widow.” “A young widow with a milk-and-honey voice like yours? You will be accosted your first night.” “I know how to defend myself. I am related by marriage to a duke, one who used to travel the world as a prizefighter.” He rolled his eyes and folded his arms.

“Please tell me this is some elaborate tale to give me indigestion?” “It most certainly is not.” She folded her arms and mirrored his belligerent frown. “If it’s a bit of freedom you want, why don’t I escort you back with the company of your maid? I’ll invite Ned, and we will make a fun little trip of it.” “That would put me under your protection. I don’t need anyone’s protection. That is precisely my point. I can protect myself. I knew you wouldn’t understand. I thought my sisters would—being so independent and resourceful as we had to be our whole lives. We are not sheltered daughters.

They’ve changed. They’ve gone soft.” “Of course they have, they’re mothers now. It will happen to you too when you have a babe of your own.” Willa swallowed. A babe of her own? She hadn’t given it much thought, being the youngest of nine children. A child looked like so much work. Her sisters had helped raise her. She hadn’t thought she wanted children of her own, but then her sisters had cute, plump, pink little babies. She might be changing her mind.

Softening, as it were, to the idea, but that would mean finding a husband, which she wanted to do in her own time, in her own way. “Willa, I’m going to be honest with you. We’ve always been honest with each other, haven’t we?” “Refreshingly so. It’s what I like most about you.” “This idea is stupid,” he said. She flinched. “Stupid?” He’d never been that honest with her. “Your experience with the aristocrats of high society is limited. You don’t understand the trouble you’re asking for, and not just from the men who will see right through any disguise you attempt. If it is known you traveled four days on your own, you will be ruined.

There’s no telling what they will say about you.” “I have never cared about rumors.” “You should start,” he said. “A lady in your position cannot play fast and loose with her reputation. It doesn’t just affect you. It affects everyone around you. Your friends, your acquaintances, your sisters. You represent them all. You can hurt them in ways you haven’t even thought of.” Willa clenched her teeth and breathed deeply through her nose before she lost her temper.

“I knew I shouldn’t have told you. You don’t understand.” “I understand what you want, but this isn’t the way to get it.” “I don’t think you do. How could you?” “I don’t want to see you hurt. You’re the smartest person I know. Men from Cambridge can’t keep up with you. But this idea is ludicrous. You can come up with something else. I know you will think of another way.

” Willa huffed in annoyance. Now he was pandering to her ego. Was this a mistake? She’d gone to so much trouble already to plan her clandestine escape, but he made some valid points. The only problem was now someone else knew what she planned to do. And while they’d always been honest with each other, she now realized that in this, she would have to lie. She felt dirty being dishonest with one of her few true friends. Her debut into society hadn’t been smooth. Most of the people she met were false and egotistical. They didn’t like her opinions or her observations. They sneered at her, whispered behind her back.

She supposed that’s why her sisters had become so protective of her. They thought she was hurt by such actions, but she wasn’t. Willa didn’t care about the opinions of others. She knew herself, and Wesley knew her. Which is why he probably wasn’t going to believe what she would say next. But there wasn’t much he could do about it. In this next endeavor, she was going to be alone, at least until she made it to London, and she would make it to London. She was a Marsden. Marsdens never turned their back on a challenge. She lifted her chin.

“Fine, I’ll do something else. I will go back with Georgie tomorrow, and in four days, we’ll have tea at Gunther’s. How about that?” He nodded once, his lips set in a grim line. “I look forward to it.” “My toes are damp. How about we go inside and have a nice pot of tea?” He offered his arm and she accepted, trying to ignore the hollow feeling in her stomach. They left the cozy shelter of the willow and proceeded to the house.

.

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