Two Lady Scoundrels and a Duke – Tessa Candle

Katherine shivered and forced a scrap of muslin into the crack by the small kitchen window of her cottage. It was a bit of fabric left over from one of the many dresses she possessed in her youth, before things went bad and she lost her parents. In her youth? It was but three years ago, yet everything had changed. That girl thought nothing of the cost of things in the glossy, fragile world that she took for granted. A cascade of icy spikes broke free from the awning and crashed to the ground outside. She startled—then shrugged. Everything broke, and pretty things sprayed heart-piercing shards when they did so. Some Christmas this would be. It was a glum thought, and she scoffed in self-reproof. Such maudlin descents into selfpity did no good. If the icicles were dropping, at least that meant the air was warming up. It had been an uncharacteristically cold winter for the southern English countryside. Hopefully it would relent soon, but no matter. The cold would not stop her from the business she had to attend to. But could she really do it? Dog nuzzled her hand, and Katherine realized she had been staring into space.

She looked down at him and patted his head. “Good lad.” It pained her to see him growing so thin. It was worse even than occasionally catching sight of her own pinched features in the bit of mirror on her decrepit toilette table. He was her only friend in the world, and she was failing him. Her resolve steeled as she scratched his long ears. “I will get us money, Dog. We shall have some food, and we will not lose our home.” As unpleasant as it was, it had to be done. She hefted the great coat that hung warming by the few coal embers valiantly standing vigil in the grate, and swung it over her thin shoulders.

It smelled of smoke and must, but that would only help with the manly illusion. With all the extra padding she had installed, no one would see her feminine frame. She covered her face with a scarf and slapped on a man’s hat. The pair of pistols she withdrew from the cupboard by the door glittered red in the last rays of sunset. Should she load them? No. She was about to do a terrible thing, but she would not compound it by actually harming someone. Better to be caught and hanged than to injure another person—even if they be one more useless rich bastard in the endless parade of useless rich bastards. At least that was what she was hoping for: some contemptible cuffin, carrying pots of money. Surely, there would be some on their way to visit other rich friends for some Christmas house party or other. But robbers could not be choosers.

A less loathsome victim would have to do, so long as he was rich. She cleared her throat. “Stand and deliver!” Too feminine. She forced her voice into a croak. “Stand and deliver.” Better. Dog was sniffing suspiciously at the bulky coat that disguised his mistress. She tucked her pistols into the massive pockets and gave Dog a big hug, in case it was their last. Then she fetched the last of their food, some porridge dotted with bits of fish from the cold room, and placed it on the floor for him. In case she did not come back, at least he would have enough to sustain him until someone came—probably the agent, looking for the rent.

Hopefully he would take pity on Dog and adopt him or find him a new home. And yet it was a faint hope. The agent was not a good man. She wiped her eye, but found it dry, and mused bitterly that it was, indeed, possible to run out of tears. What a discovery to make at a moment like this. Dog sniffed the food, but looked up at her. His eyes were still wet. “Oh, my beloved friend, do not look at me so!” The sun slipped below the horizon. Best get it over with. Katherine sighed, pulled down the sled that leaned against the wall and left the relative warmth of her cottage.

“I love you, Dog.” She could not look back. “W C HA P T E R 2 A GRU M B L ING D UK E hat miserable ruddy weather,” the Duke of Foxleigh muttered to himself and pulled a fur carriage blanket closer about him, steadying his back against the seat of the jouncing vehicle. The snow was slowing their progress considerably, and it was making him cross as two sticks. But then again, did he really want to arrive any sooner than was necessary? The Christmas house party at Blackwood Manor sounded so appealing when he accepted, but now he was not so sure. Perhaps the allure was enhanced by a desire to escape Marie, who had been lurking about again, doing her best to accidentally run into him. Presumably she had tired of her other aristocratic conquest—and probable father of the child she kept tucked away—the Earl of Baton. The boy certainly resembled Lord Baton, with the same tow-head, cornflower blue eyes and elongated bone structure—more beautiful than handsome, with highly refined features. There was no doubt in Foxleigh’s mind that his brief dalliance with Marie had not produced this child, no matter what Marie might have once claimed. Her story was perpetually changing.

His own swarthy complexion, coarse features, black hair and dark eyes bore no resemblance to the boy, whatsoever. But the lies that woman told! Though she had certainly bedded enough English gentlemen because of her beauty, facility with the arts of flattery and deception were her principle charms. She knew how to insinuate herself into a man’s mind. She could locate and prey upon his vulnerabilities to craft precisely the falsehood he most wanted to hear. Oh, but she was so sympathetic to the loss of Foxleigh’s beloved father. She had just lost her husband and then her own dear Papa, and could never be consoled. Yet having Foxleigh to condole with was such a comfort. He was a saint for rescuing her from her own dark moods, and they bonded over their mutual grief. Foxleigh clenched his teeth at the memory. What a ruddy idiot he was to take her into his bed, but she made it seem so natural.

Then she went away, and he was devastated, though in retrospect it was the kindest thing she had ever done for him. It was no doubt calculated to increase his attachment by her absence. He snorted with contempt. Anything to become a rich duchess. But the hiatus from her had the opposite effect. It gave him time to come to his senses, to meet and fall in love with a woman of true merit —beautiful inside and out, strong-willed but with powers of reason to match. She was more widely read than he, could beat him at both chess and whist, and she made him laugh, often at himself. A SAD SMİLE forced its way, unbidden, onto his features, before dissolving into a scowl, as he remembered Marie’s sudden return and her insistence that the child she carried was his. But she was gone again as soon as she learned that the Foxleigh inheritance was scarcely more than a title and a moldering estate with a millstone of debt hanging around its neck. Then it became clear to her that the child must belong to another, richer man.

Her sanctimony was palpable. It was only that she could never dream of burdening such a noble man as Foxleigh with a child that was not his own. Marie Dubois was a truly despicable and morally bankrupt adventuress. And she had cost him the only woman he would ever love. His fiancée must have got wind of his prior affair. She disappeared without a trace, and he never found her. He eventually gave up. Why shackle her to a life of want? Only now he was rich. Foxleigh could provide luxuriously for a wife and a hundred children. But he had no hope of finding his love now.

The trail was cold. She might not even be in England anymore. His life thus far had been oppressed by perverse timing. He spoke to the empty carriage seat across from him. “Perhaps I should go to the colonies and look for her there.” It would be convenient to get away, especially with Marie once more making herself as odiously available as possible. But this fantastical plan of escape would not save him from the immediate peril of suffering everyone else’s nauseating happiness and festive joy. As appealing as some yuletide merriment with his friends and family would be, he did not know if he could endure the relentless spectacle of their domestic bliss when his own prospects were so permanently shattered. His bitter reflections were disrupted by a sudden lurch. The carriage was gaining speed.

“What the deuce?” A hail of shots sounded. One of the men yowled in pain before the carriage careened and tipped, hurling him from his seat. K C HA P T E R 3 FOUR FA L L ING TURD S atherine wiped her running nose on her sleeve and replaced the scarf that concealed her face. At least the snow had stopped, but it was getting colder as the darkness settled over the land. So far only peasants had passed, people she could as easily give some alms as rob. The last fingers of twilight withdrew and the meagre light of the crescent moon was all that remained to travel by. With no full moon to light their way, not many would persist in their journeys. Perhaps she should try again tomorrow. The sound of hoofbeats and jingling tackle alerted her to an approaching rider. Katherine squinted and made out a dark splotch growing closer on the roadway.

She almost felt sorry for him, riding on horseback in this cold. But she hardened her heart. If he had a full purse, he was fair game. When he came into view, it did not take long to ascertain that he had money. His hat was askew and squashed, but of the first water, and he had a great cape of fur draped about him. Yet he rode without a saddle and, though the horse was only moving at a plodding pace, he wobbled in his seat. He was talking to himself and as he drew nearer she heard him say, “Ruddy houshe party. Should have bloody well shtayed at home!” Then he continued saying things that, though she could hear them, sounded like gibberish. She smiled. He must be drunk.

’Twas the season after all. Plenty drunk and plenty rich— an ideal target. A cloud passed over the moon. The moment was perfect for her attack. No time to lose her nerve. Her heart pounded and she swallowed hard as she wielded her pistols and stepped out into the road, yelling, “Stand and deliver!” It lacked conviction and was muffled by her scarf. She winced, wishing she could laugh at herself for sounding so ridiculous, but she knew that any levity at such a moment would give her away entirely. The horse seemed unimpressed, but obligingly stopped. The man opened his eyes wide and exclaimed in a slur, “Pernishus farthing-chishlers!” before falling off his horse in a dead faint. Pernicious farthing-chiselers? An odd thing to say—he must be thoroughly foxed.

Wait, had she shot him? She looked at her pistols and sniffed the air. No smoke. And anyway, she was quite certain they were not loaded. She shook her head and whispered, “Get a hold of yourself, Kat. Go fetch his purse and be off before he wakes up again!”

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