In which the Lady Chastity and The Honorable Mr. Wickham conspire to cut short the Duke of Earl’s happiness (to say nothing of his neck), while the duke’s ward, Ward, demonstrates the usefulness of being neither seen nor heard.
Lady Chastity took yet another circuit of the Netherloin portrait gallery, practicing some of the saltier phrases she’d picked up from her grandmother, the former opera dancer and originator of the Feelsgood Bosom Extender, the corset that was responsible for the family’s rise to its current prominence. Queen Anne had been so taken by the corset’s possibilities that she’d promptly elevated Chastity’s grandfather to a rather minor earldom—still quite enough to make him a leading light in the county.
It should have been more than enough to make Chastity the leading candidate for Duchess of Earl too. Until the duke had apparently decided to abscond in pursuit of his other fiancée, the governess.
She paused to kick the nearest item of furniture, a pedestal upon which rested a bust of some distant ancestor, looking remarkably like Willoughby Wickham. The pedestal trembled but stayed in place. Chastity resisted the urge to grasp her toe and hop around the hall, howling.
Footsteps sounded on the marble floor behind her, and she drew herself to her full Amazonian height. She felt like giving whoever it was a thorough tongue-lashing, except for the rather unpleasant mental image that term conjured up.
“Lady Chastity,” the Honorable Mr. Wickham intoned from behind her. “Well met.”
“Well met?” Chastity whirled about, balling her hands in fists. “Well met? I’ll give you well met, sir. You idiot nephew has run away with a penniless governess. Then again, since I understand the duchy is also penniless, that should make them admirably well-suited. I’ve sent for my carriage. My solicitors will be contacting you quite soon about the return of my dowry after my own return to Bosom of the Hills, my family estate. We Feelsgoods do not respond kindly to insult!”
She had the great pleasure of seeing Mr. Wickham’s face turn pale. But then again, given the pasty nature of his complexion, the journey to pale wasn’t far. He raised his hands, palms outward. “My lady, I beg you to reconsider. Young men have their quirks, their wild starts. I assure you my nephew will return posthaste. My men have already been dispatched to find him and…er…return him.”
Chastity folded her arms across her own, not inconsequential bust (the Feelsgood Bosom had reference far beyond corsets, after all), tapping her uninjured toe indignantly on the marble floor. “And what makes you think I want another woman’s leavings, sir? I have reconsidered my previous consent to your offer of marriage in your nephew’s behalf. I have no intention of wedding someone with so little taste as to fancy a…a servant!”
“Suppose”— Mr. Wickham leaned forward, his voice dropping to a murmur—“just suppose that the current Duke of Earl were to meet with…” His glance flew quickly right and left. Seeing nobody in the hall but Chastity, he continued. “Suppose he were to meet with an untimely demise. The estate would then pass to another branch of the family. The Wickhams, to be precise.”
Chastity blinked. “The Wickhams? Your own branch, sir? It was my understanding that you were related to the duke through his mother rather than his father.”
The Honorable Mr. Wickham’s smile took on a faintly smug tinge. “As it happens, I am related through both matrilineal and patrilineal lines, as I have only recently had confirmed by the royal genealogist. My late sister was the late duke’s second cousin as well as his spouse. I myself am the only surviving sprout of this branch of a sadly truncated family tree. A tree I hope soon to graft to much more bountiful stock.”
His gaze dipped significantly to Chastity’s prow. She considered upbraiding him, but the possibilities he proposed seemed far more interesting. Her toe tapping slowed to a toe tipping. “Are you proposing a new alliance, sir? With yourself? Yet doesn’t such an alliance depend upon the present duke’s meeting with a fortuitous accident?”
Mr. Wickham’s lips quirked upward into something approaching a smirk. “Would such an alliance be pleasing to you, my lady? If, of course, such an accident were to occur?”
Chastity really had to think about that, an experience that she normally avoided. The Honorable Mr. Willoughby Wickham was hardly a prepossessing figure. In fact, he ranked high on the list of Most Unattractive People Encountered Thus Far In a Lady’s Life. On the other hand, holding a significant title did increase a man’s appeal enormously, if not his stature, which reached somewhere in the neighborhood of Chastity’s shoulder. While she much preferred the current duke in terms of both appearance and presumed virility, he was rapidly becoming unavailable. And, when all was said and done, the title was perhaps equally attractive, even if it came attached to such a puny package.
“You would be Duke of Earl,” she said carefully since in her experience it was always best to spell these things out, “should your nephew become the victim of any unforeseen fatal occurrence?”
“I would.” Mr. Wickham’s pale eyes took on a sinister gleam that was almost, but not quite, enough to make up for the fact that his chin was virtually non-existent. “I have the warrant of the royal genealogist to that effect.”
“What do you expect to happen to the current duke?” Chastity wasn’t sure she really wanted to know, but then again, always best to be clear.
“His grace has unfortunately returned to his earlier profession, one that no decent society can countenance. I speak, of course, of highway robbery.” Mr. Wickham’s smile seemed to have moved into the indecent category as well. “Moreover, there are certain quite troubling indications that the earlier disappearance of his twin brother was not, perhaps, the accident it was originally supposed to be. In fact, said accident seems to have been less accident than design. The duke has certainly profited by the loss of his twin.”
Chastity studied Mr. Wickham’s Spanish leather boots, his fine wool coat, his deerskin breeches, and his bejeweled quizzing glass. “Profit,” she murmured. “Do tell.”
“Highway robbery, not to mention murder, are both capital offenses,” Mr. Wickham continued. “Should my men be unable to persuade His Grace to return, they have orders to proceed to the sheriff and inform him of the duke’s…proclivities and the grave suspicions surrounding his brother’s death. The penalty for capital crimes, of course, is hanging. Although in the duke’s case, that penalty will be exacted with a velvet rope.”
“And after that…” Chastity narrowed her eyes.
“After that, I, Willoughby Wickham the Fourteenth, shall become Duke of Earl. And I beg you, my dear, to consider my suit.”
Chastity blew out a quick breath, considering. It was indeed a fine woolen suit. But even within its fine lines, Mr. Wickham looked remarkably like a garden slug. However, the Feelsgood women were made of sturdy stock. They took their husbands where they found them, and soon thereafter they took them for everything they were worth. “I would be delighted to do so, Your Future Grace.”
Ward sat silently in the carved wooden chair on the far end of the portrait gallery. He’d long been accustomed to adults ignoring his very existence, but he’d never before found it an advantage. He only wished his governess were somewhere about so that he could share the very disturbing news he’d just heard.
Then again, given Miss Fitzgerald’s general ability to absorb and act upon important information, perhaps not.
Still, he couldn’t help feeling some responsibility to warn the duke about the plot being hatched upon his life. Of course, first he’d have to decide which duke was being threatened since he’d already deduced that the duke who was chasing Miss Fitzgerald was most decidedly not the duke who had run away to be a pirate.
However, the possibility of twins was certainly intriguing. Neither of the dukes had ever mentioned it in Ward’s hearing, but then he was frequently left out of the most interesting conversations.
Given that the runaway still appeared to be missing and the one who was after Miss Fitzgerald had been in residence until that afternoon, Ward assumed he was the duke in question and in jeopardy. A highwayman, no less.
He drew his brows together in thought. After he succeeded in saving the erstwhile duke from the hangman’s noose, he’d have to prevail upon him to explain the details of his profession. Given that Ward had yet to deduce any source of future income for himself, any more than he’d been able to deduce the names of his parents, he needed to give all possible future professions careful consideration.
But first, he needed to locate the current duke-in-residence and set about saving him. He sighed. Seemed simple enough.
A slight movement at the side of the portrait gallery caught his attention. He frowned. It appeared to be an animal of some sort. Long, furry body, pointed snout, small shell-like ears. Quite attractive, really. Assuming it wasn’t some exotic sort of rat.
He dropped to his knees, crawling slowly across the cold marble floor so as not to frighten the beast. It turned its head to consider him with eyes like peppercorns.
“Here…thing,” he whispered. “Nice…whatever.”
The animal considered him for another long moment, then scuttled toward his outstretched fingers. Ward stroked its long, soft back, then gathered it gently against his chest. “Well, beast,” he murmured, “shall we go and try to save his temporary grace from the velvet rope?”The animal snuggled more securely against him in apparent assent. Ward sighed. At last. Someone to confide in who would neither pat him on the head nor threaten him with warm milk. Perhaps things really were looking up.
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The Naughty Nine