Two Years Later
A rather unmasculine squeak rose in Wickham Willoughby’s throat, and faced with the possibility of having his gentlemanly jewels skewered by one of the long pins within his wife’s reach, he did his best to comply. “It is rather impossible to sit still when you are jabbing pins into such a delicate region.”
Lady Chastity tipped her head in much the same manner he imagined the exotic Black Widow spider did before devouring the male foolish enough to mate with her. “I assure you, this will be the latest in men’s fashions.”
“Should I endeavour to point out you said much the same about both the Feelsgood Abdomen Artisan and the Bottom Beautifier?”
A pin stabbed his thigh, and he clapped a hand over his mouth to contain another choked squeal.
Looking smug, she tugged on the material between his legs. “Yes, but those who failed to appreciate the genius behind both creations will be crawling over each other to secure themselves one of these.”
Not completely ignorant to the way she innocently rolled a pin back and forth between her fingers, Wickham hastily agreed. “Of course you’re right. I do hope you don’t mind me pointing out that most gentleman would, however, prefer to retain feeling in their—”
The material pinched his skin. “Suck in.”
“I am.” Wickham gritted out, perhaps too harshly, as Chastity instantly dropped her pins and tears worthy of a Shakespearean production ran down her cheeks.
“Really, Willoughby. You must know how hard I’ve been working.” She held up her hands. “Do you see the toll my hands have taken to return us both to the status we deserve?”
From Wickham’s point of view there was no evidence Chastity had done more than dismiss their last seamstress after the woman pointed out she hadn’t been paid in weeks. He was wise enough not to say as much to the female still much too close to the pins.
“Forgive my thoughtlessness, my dear. Please continue.” The sad fact of the matter was that this was the only way he stood a chance of reclaiming the fortune he’d stood to gain had he managed to marry Lady Chastity and get his hands on her dowry before she’d been disowned.
His plan to become the next Duke of Earl had been perfect, and he would have gotten away with it too if it wasn’t for those meddling twins and their parrot. Although he’d been lucky to escape the debacle at Netherloin with his body parts (especially the one currently at Lady Chastity’s disposal) intact, he could hardly contain his disappointment at losing the title and being forced to flee from his home.
He’d thought he had gotten away scot free when he’d been awakened in the dead of night by that nefarious ninja. Only the sight of Lady Chastity in his bed, after drowning herself in drink at the inn where they’d taken refuge following their escape, gave the ninja pause.
Wickham had readied himself to challenge her to a dignified duel when she merely laughed and said marrying Lady Chastity was likely punishment enough for his crimes. In the next moment he’d found himself alone, but on many an occasion since then wondered if he would have been better off meeting the ninja at dawn with pistols.
A servant entered the room, drawing Wickham from his thoughts. The only servant left in their employ took one look at Wickham’s state of undress and Chastity on her knees in front of him, and fled the room.
“There.” A satisfied expression on her face, Chastity rose to her feet.
“It is rather…snug.”
Lady Chastity rolled her eyes dismissively.
“You mock my pain.”
“Life is pain, Willoughby.” She dusted her hands off on her skirts, gave the material one more tug and stood back to survey the overall affect.
“I daresay the Feelsgood Gentleman’s Extender is going to be a smash.”
Somewhere in the Caribbean
Practising her ninja stealth skills, Quinn slid silently from the jungle and lowered herself onto a piece of driftwood at the edge of the sand.
Colin stood with his back to her, his sword poised to slash someone from neck to navel (though she’d never witnessed Colin cut anything but the chunks of meat served to him at mealtimes) and a rather queer looking piece of wood secured to his leg with two pieces of rope.
Likely Mori had tied the knots. Although an enthusiastic pupil, which Colin attributed to his many years under the tutelage of Headmaster Sidebottom—Quinn grinded her teeth at the thought—the unvarnished truth was that her brawny buccaneer couldn’t tie his way out of a shredded paper bag.
“…and then the dashing pirate drove his sword right into the beast’s long snout.” Colin punctuated the climax of his favourite story by driving his blade into the ground. He crouched down, his fingers digging into the sand as he continued, “Only by clinging to the twisting, thrashing reptile did he escape being thrown against the ship and sent to a watery grave at the bottom of Donald Jones’s Locker.”
Quinn rolled her eyes but didn’t interrupt to correct him. She was too engrossed in her beloved’s exaggerated tale. Each time she overheard him telling this particular story, the events became more fanciful and daring.
To hear him tell it, Quinn was naught but a defenseless maiden who had the poor misfortune to fall into the clutches of a band of plundering pirates and made to walk the plank. Only at the last minute did brave Captain Colin Darcy realize he wanted to keep the daft woman—daft since she was apparently unable to tell port from starboard—as his captive, and jumped over to side of the ship to rescue her.
Colin lowered his voice to a near whisper she barely heard above the late afternoon breeze. “And if you listen very, very carefully, you can still hear the same tick-tock tick-tock echoing over the waves whenever we venture into the beast’s territory. The end.”
His audience of two stared up at him and clapped their chubby hands as Colin dropped into a sweeping bow.
“So you didn’t slay the beast?”
Colin jumped at the sound of her voice, spinning around so quickly he nearly knocked over the two tiny bodies at his feet, their angelic faces held captive by the tale weaved by their father.
Absently patting both Jane and Austen on their blond heads, he strode toward Quinn. Twice he stumbled, the stick tied to his leg dragging in the sand.
Grinning, he took Quinn’s hand. “One day I shall again cross paths with the beast and dispatch the four-legged fiend, as I would have if there had been more than a wine bottle at my disposal.”
Because she’d come to love listening to Colin’s stories, she hadn’t the heart to tell her buccaneer bard that she’d caught her leathery-hided nemesis a short while after their return to the sea. She doubted his somewhat delicate sensibilities would appreciate hearing that the special ingredient in the cook’s stew (the very same he’d raved about for weeks afterward) had been crocodile.
After tripping twice more, she peered down at his leg. “What is the stick for, my love?”
“Stick?” Colin frowned.
She gestured to the wood and rope.
“All proper pirates have peg legs.”
Pemberley flew out of the jungle at that precise moment and landed on Colin’s shoulder. “Awk. Peg leg. Awk.”
Colin waved at the bird. “Stop trying to pretend it was your idea.”
“Proper pirates?” Quinn arched a brow.
“Er…that is to say…” He straightened. “Well, blow me down.”
“Colin,” Quinn admonished, feeling a blush creep up her face. “Not in front of the children.”
Confusion drew his dashing dark brows together. “Yes…quite right.” He cleared his throat. “Look there, my little landlubbers. There be pirates stormin’ the beach.”
Shielding her eyes from the sun, Quinn followed Colin’s gaze to where Jack and Sparrow were coming ashore. “Mori says the tides are turning and we best be off if it suits you, Captain.”
“Aye.” They were leaving their island paradise for an overdue visit to Netherloin. By the goddess O-Wata-Tsumi it would be the briefest voyage to England yet, and their previous one had been unnaturally swift.
Jack and Sparrow collected the twins, Jane and Austen giggling as they were carried off to the waiting vessel.
“Ready my nautical ninja?” Colin held out his hand, but laughingly swept her up into his arms at the last second instead.
They made it three feet before Colin’s peg leg pitched them onto the sand.
Dazed, Colin lifted his head. “How do you suppose they walk with a peg leg?”
Reaching over, Quinn slid her katana from its scabbard and cut through the ropes.
“Perhaps you would be better suited to just a parrot.”
“Perhaps you’re right.” Colin leaned up on his elbows, gesturing to the boat riding over the waves toward the waiting ship. “Suppose they’ll be back for us?”
Jack and Sparrow, having witnessed her and Colin fall into the sand, likely assumed the pair were in need of a private moment. Seeing as her katana was so conveniently in hand, she would be loath to miss such a timely opportunity.
Quinn straddled her husband. “Not before I’ve had my way with you.”
Seeing the katana in her hand, Colin wiggled excitedly beneath her.
“Now, pirate,” Quinn began. “Prepare to be boarded.”
Pemberley circled above them. “Awk. Prepare to be boarded. Awk.”
“Oh no. It’s the Dread Highwayman, Firth.” Julia clutched the reins of the horse behind her, careful to avoid meeting the masked man’s gaze.
Appear helpless, demure, frightened. Those has been her husband’s instructions before they’d left Netherloin’s stables and ventured away from their home at such a late hour.
Dressed entirely in black, the highwayman muttered something under his breath.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Westley. The Dread Highwayman Westley. Who would ever surrender to the Dread Highwayman Firth?”
Praying her husband was not about to suffer another episode where he couldn’t decide what he should be called, Julia frowned. She did not look forward to further weeks of “Your Grace” while he again debated the advantages of using his birth name versus the one given to him by his mentor.
Before her highwayman husband could reflect again on his choice, she raised her chin. “You’re blocking the road.”
“And where might a comely creature such as yourself be headed without an escort?”
“I don’t believe that’s any of your business.”
He edged his horse forward until beast and man towered above her. “And if I make it my business, sweet governess?”
Feeling a chill and wishing she was already snuggled beneath her covers (where it was much warmer than mentioned in the books she so loved about just such an adventure) she sighed. “We both know I’m not headed anywhere—”
Westley/Firth made an exasperated sound.
Deciding it was in her best interest to play along if she desired to have her husband snuggled beneath the covers alongside her, Julia sidestepped the man in black’s horse. “My business is my own.” By sheer coincidence a cool breeze made her shiver, adding a layer of fear to her voice.
The man in black slid off his horse, landing before her. “If you wish to pass my lady, then you must pay the toll.”
Julia frowned. He’d failed to provide her with any tokens to exchange during their game. Had he forgotten or had anticipating his role tonight triggered another bout of
“What’s My Name?” and she hadn’t noticed?
Assuming the lapse had been intentional, she shook her head. “I have no riches to pay. Nothing of value.”
His gaze ran over her from head to foot in a most brazen fashion, and a surge of unladylike jealousy swept through her. Had he stared at other women he’d robbed like that?
“Then the price of passage,” he continued, “is a kiss.”
“A kiss,” she repeated slowly, suddenly thinking of him stopping a coach with some strumpet the likes of Lady Chastity inside. The thought of her highwayman (nevermind that he’d long ago turned in his mask for a duchy) exchanging kisses with anyone but her… “Close your eyes.”
He blinked in surprise, but complied, giving Julia just enough time to pull her horse forward in time to meet her husband’s waiting mouth.
The very sight of his lips smushed up against her mare’s dissolved Julia’s anger and she spun around, laughing as she fled. Her feet left the earth moments later as she was lifted off her feet and lowered to the ground.
Her man in black hovered above her. “Perhaps a different game would be more to my duchess’s liking?”
She thought it over. “How do you feel about playing a farm boy?”
Westley/Firth scrunched up his nose, then his expression brightened considerably.
“The stables would be warmer and much closer to home.”
Pleased, Julia snuggled closer. “I must admit I’m not nearly as cold now.”
It was well after midnight by the time they returned home. They stopped at the nursery when they noticed the light spilling into the dark hallway from the door left ajar. Inside the sound of Ward’s voice carried above two sleepy giggles.
From the half open doorway they watched Ward read to the year-old twins with dark hair like their father and their mother’s cerulean blue eyes. Both sweet Nora and a rambunctious Roberts kicked their feet at Ward’s tale. Brigid perched on the boy’s shoulders, occasionally darting over to the twins and then back, lest he miss a minute of the story.
Without disturbing them (and sparing herself the hours it might take to settle the pair back down when everyone was excited about Colin and Quinn’s upcoming visit) Julia tugged her husband back into the hallway.
She wrapped her arms around the highwayman of her dreams. “Kiss me, husband.”
Happy to oblige, he lowered his mouth to hers. “As you wish.”