He may have been a nefarious highwayman, but even Westley-now-Colin knew that rejecting a woman like Julia would be unforgivably cruel.
It did not occur to him that Dread Highwaymen likely did not care about being unforgivably cruel.
It really seemed the only way to preserve her delicate feelings was to, in fact, kiss her. A Duke (or Highwayman, for that matter) had to do what a Duke (or Highwayman) had to do.
The moment his lips touched hers, however, Westley-now-Colin knew that not only would Wickham be un-amused, but it was likely his betrothed would be a tad irritated as well.
After all, he was going to have to call off their engagement.
Julia wasn’t the kind of woman to be bedded and forgotten. Or even forgotten without the bedding. And while he wanted to bed her—or floor-of-the-nursery her—he would certainly also like to…
Julia moaned softly and pressed closer and all thoughts fled Westley’s mind but having her. Julia’s mouth was a sweet, infectious cavern of lust and, dare he say it, love. He kissed her without remorse—an emotion he’d heard of only once when Roberts told him to never feel it— and knew that he was losing his heart.
It wasn’t as if he’d been without women. Nay, he’d had women a plenty. But none that made him feel so adored, so protective, so worthy.
By God, if a fair and winsome woman like Julia could love him, perhaps he could be more than a Duke in name only. Perhaps he could rise to the occasion—the occasion of being the Duke rather than the occasion of kissing Julia which he most certainly was rising to— and serve his household and peasants (Dukes did have peasants, did they not?) in a manner befitting a, well, Duke.
Yes, he could do that. With Julia at his side he could restore the Dukedom, or whatever it was called, to prestige and wealth. Without marrying Lady Chastity. He could plant some crops, raise some animals, make some… blast it. He didn’t know how to do any of those things.
Julia tilted her head to the other side and arched closer to him and Westley knew in the depths of his once-nefarious-now-restored soul that he would do anything to be with her. He would forsake the Dukedom—or whatever it was called—and the peasants if necessary. He would travel to the ends of the earth. He would fight ninjas if he had to.
Or pirates. Pirates were cool. They were actually quite similar to highwaymen. Just on water.
And they had treasure. If he had pirate treasure he wouldn’t need to marry Lady Chastity. He would have all the riches he needed and he and Julia…
But wait. If pirates were like highwaymen on water, then highwaymen were like pirates… on land.
And they also collected treasure.
Yes. He could obtain the needed wealth. Hell, he’d been doing that for some time. How had he not thought of this before?
Julia sighed and he knew why. Until this moment, he had been fine with the plan.
Marrying Lady Chastity was far easier than obtaining riches from others. Being a Highwayman required long hours, late nights, fighting and a lot of scowling, which sometimes gave him a headache. There was also the chance of bad weather, the risk of being nicked by a sword and, of course, the chance that the coffers would be less than heavy. Being a Dread Highwayman also carried a lot of pressure. One off night and his reputation was ruined.
But Julia, whose hands were now wandering down his backside, was worth all of that.
He would amass the required riches by whatever means necessary.
Then he would work on being a proper Duke. He’d start by no longer pillaging and plundering.
And maybe he’d have a dinner party.
He tore his mouth from Julia’s, breathing hard. “Julia, I really must say…”
“What is going on?”
The shriek was shrill enough to rattle the nursery windows and set Westley’s teeth on edge.
He turned slowly, not quite managing to let go of Julia as he did so.
Ah, his betrothed. How lovely.
***Julia blinked at Lady Chastity Feelsgood. Her mind was still quite muddled by the kiss—oh, the kiss—from Colin. For a moment she forgot why she should be abashed in facing the other woman, but the notion swam at the back of her consciousness.
“It seems that Lady Chastity is unhappy,” Ward observed from behind Colin.
Julia’s hand flew to her mouth and she gasped. No! Lady Chastity had seen Colin kiss her! As had Ward.
She wasn’t sure which she was more ashamed about.
“You!” Chastity advanced on her, her index finger pointing straight at Julia’s nose. “You whore! You Jezebel! You…”
“Strumpet?” Ward offered.
“Strumpet!” Chastity repeated. At an even higher octave. “You are nothing but a servant in this household! How dare you put your hands, your lips, on my Duke!”
Julia bristled. She was quite certain that Colin had put his hands and lips on her as well, thank you very much. And he’d seemed intent on keeping right with it. Not to mention that he was every bit as much her Duke as he was Chastity’s. Julia had been brought up in Netherloin Park.
“Ward, you should return to the nursery,” Julia said calmly, removing her hands, albeit reluctantly, from Colin and straightening her dress. “This is an adult matter. I shall be there in a moment.”
“I do believe that staying to see how the Duke handles the situation would be quite educational,” Ward replied. “That kiss certainly was.”
“Ward,” Julia said through gritted teeth. “The nursery.”
The boy went, but Julia suspected he lurked just behind the door. Ah, well. She had a more pressing matter at hand. Namely that of her true love and his misled former fiancé.
“Lady Chastity, I regret that you found out this way, but as you can see the Duke has discovered that his true affections belong with me. He just proposed marriage to me and I have happily accepted. You will understand that he cannot continue with—”
“Harlot?” came a voice from the nursery.
“Yes, harlot!” Chastity exclaimed. “Your Grace, surely you can’t be serious. The entire Duchy—”
“What’s a Duchy?” Colin asked.
“Your holdings are referred to as a Duchy,” Julia told him. What was wrong with him?
“Ah, rather than a Dukedom?” Colin asked.
Julia stared at him. “Yes.”
“Very good. I have holdings,” Colin said, looking smug.
Chastity blinked at him, then continued, “The fate of the entire Duchy rests on your shoulders. If you take up with this… this…” She glanced toward the nursery door.
“I don’t know any other terms for prostitutes,” Ward called apologetically.
“Prostitute,” Chastity sneered. “You will never help Netherloin regain its glory.”
“It had glory?” Colin asked with clear surprise.
“Such glory,” Chastity assured him.
Julia frowned at him. Why did he sound so surprised? Of course Netherloin had been glorious. At one time. Admittedly some time back. But still…
“And do I have peasants?”
Chastity smiled at him. “Of course, Your Grace. Though the politically correct term is tenants.”
Colin’s eyes widened. “I’ll be referred to as Your Grace?”
“Yes, of course.” Chastity took the opportunity to sidle closer, running her hand up his arm.
“There are a great many reasons that being the Duke of Earl is an enviable position. Once your finances are secure think of the things you can do.”
“Like what?” he breathed, intent on her words.
Julia crossed her arms and tapped her foot. What was going on? How did he not know about his tenants? Or his title? What had that pirate ship done to him?
She peered closer. There truly was something different about him. Something rougher, something harder, something… delicious. She shivered remembering his kiss. She would have never imagined Colin Darcy, the ninth Duke of Earl, capable of such decadence.
Lady Chastity moved even closer to him, adjusting the tight bodice on her gown so that more of her ample bosom was on display. “Once Netherloin is again secure and respected, you can do anything you want.” She paused. “Your Grace.”
Colin took a deep breath, his eyes bright. “Anything I want?”
“Anything,” Chastity purred, rubbing her bountiful breasts against his arm. “You can dine with royalty, hunt with the elite, travel to far off lands.”
Julia felt sick watching the other woman put her lips near Colin’s ear.
“And there are other glorious things in store for you,” Chastity whispered.
Colin visibly swallowed hard. “Are there then?”
Julia wanted to slap him.
“Oh, certainly.” Chastity pulled down on her bodice again. “The finest wines, the richest foods, the best cigars.” She glanced at Julia as she ran her hand up over his chest. Colin’s eyes were riveted to the neckline of Chastity’s dress. Or perhaps to the diamond—ten carats easily—that nestled between the magnanimous mounds.
“Jewels?” he asked hoarsely.
“The biggest,” Chastity promised. She ran her tongue over her blood red lips. “And women who can appreciate a man of distinguished…taste.”
Julia’s eyes widened as Colin appeared to be choking. He opened his mouth to respond, but no sound came out.
The mild mannered Governess then stepped forward and whacked him on the back as hard as she could. “Are you quite all right, Your Grace?”
Colin pulled at his collar. “Yes, yes, of course, of course.” His eyes managed to leave Lady Chastity’s cleavage.
Julia propped a hand on her hip. “Need I remind you that you have proposed to me?” She wanted to cry. Or scratch Chastity’s eyes out. Or perhaps Colin’s. How could he forget the kiss, the passion, the promises their hearts had made in those stolen moments outside the nursery?
“Well.” Colin’s face was red and he had to clear his throat. “I didn’t actually… that is to say… there’s been a slight misunderstanding.”
Julia scowled at him. “Did you or did you not propose marriage to me?”
He shook his head. “I did not.”
Julia stared at him. “Pardon me?”
He reached for her. “Julia, I meant to propose that you help me find Brigid.”
Julia looked at Chastity then back to Colin. “Who’s Brigid?”
Chastity squeezed his arm and leaned close. “I am very interested in your ferret, Your Grace.”
Julia glared daggers at Chastity before demanding of Colin, “You just wanted me to help you find your ferret?”
“Yes.” He gave her a smile that she supposed he thought was charming.
“Ward?” she called.
“Yes Miss Fitzgerald?” As expected he answered from just behind the door.
“I need you to cover your ears.”
“Why, Miss Fitzgerald?”
“Because I’m about to say something very unladylike.”
***After Julia, the seemingly mild mannered Governess, told Westley what he could do
with his ferret—he wasn’t sure she understood that he did actually have a ferret, and what she suggested would not only be disgusting but probably impossible—she stormed toward the staircase.
Still speechless after hearing that sweet mouth say such unflattering things, he did not call out for her to stop.
“Now what were you saying about your ferret?” Chastity purred, running her hand from his shoulder down his back to his ass. Which she squeezed.
Westley jumped and quickly extricated himself from her hold. While he was quite capable of appreciating the woman’s— ahem—attributes, he had been overcome not by her advances but by her explanation of the Dukehood. Was that a word? In any case, he needed to get to work procuring bags of gold forthwith. “I love Julia.”
Chastity frowned. “Then why did you tell her you didn’t mean to propose to her?”
He shrugged. “I didn’t mean to. But I want to now.”
Chastity frowned harder. “What of all the things you can have if you restore the Duchy?”
Westley smiled at that. He had a Duchy. He liked the term “Dukedom” better, but it was a minor detail. “I still intend to restore Netherloin. Just not with your money, Lady Chastity.”
She frowned so hard he was afraid her forehead was going to crack. “Then what money, Your Grace?”
Westley thought perhaps his title had sounded a bit sarcastic that time. “You needn’t worry, Lady Chastity. I shall gain the necessary funds. It is none of your concern.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that,” she said ominously before turning on her heel and stomping in the opposite direction.
Westley watched her go—to be sure she was really gone— then turned… and nearly stepped on Ward.
“What are you doing, boy?”
“Are you going after Miss Julia?” Ward asked, hands on his hips.
“I don’t know where Miss Julia went,” Westley replied. He had, in fact, intended to wait right here for her. She was the Governess, after all. It stood to reason she would return to the place where she Governessed.
“She headed to the stables,” Ward said with some disdain. “And she was crying.”
“Ah.” Westley thought about that for a moment. Then he looked down at the boy who was watching him with condescension. “Do you think I should go after her?”
Ward rolled his eyes. “Yes, of course.”
Westley frowned. “Do you suppose she means to take a ride?”
Ward sighed. “Of course.”
Westley sighed too. It was dark out. And likely cold. And he hadn’t been planning on going out. But he supposed that as long as he was saddling his horse to go after Julia, he might as well see if there was anyone around with some spare pieces of gold.
He wanted to get started on the Dukehood as soon as possible, what with all the fine wine and jewels and things.
He was also sure to take his sword. Though he could not have said if it was protection from those he meant to rob or from the woman who at the moment was less than fond of his ferret.
To be continued...
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The Naughty Nine
The Naughty Nine
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