Authors: Kate Harper
Tags: #Fiction, #Erotica
My Lady Scandal
Copyright @ Kate Harper 2011
‘All we need is a clear head and a steady hand,’ Peregrine Marriott said as he looked at his sister, blue eyes gleaming beneath the brim of his bicorn hat, ‘and we cannot fail.’
Nell rolled her eyes, unimpressed. ‘After three months, I think I have grasped the concept, Perry. What concerns me more is that you are getting too forward for our own good. If there is a female in that carriage tonight and you attempt to flirt with her, I will shoot you myself.’
Perry grinned. ‘Nonsense. I have a reputation to maintain.’
‘You are an idiot,’ his loving sister retorted. ‘Let
what this is about. We stop the coach, we take the valuables from the people inside and we leave as quickly as possible. We do
linger so you can press your lips to some scatterbrain’s hand while she pretends to swoon away!’
Her brother did not appear in the least bit repentant. ‘Harmless fun. They
having their hands kissed by a wicked highwayman. It gives them something to talk about in the drawing rooms the next day.’
‘Perhaps. But we do not have too many opportunities left to us. Another week or two and the coaches traveling this road will come complete with outriders and armed occupants.’ She glanced around her and frowned. They were only two miles from their own home, which was a little too close for comfort as far as Nell was concerned. Not that there would be any chance they would be recognized, but still…
They were waiting in the shadows of some giant beeches set on the top of a rise. Late October leaves crunched under the horses’ hooves as they shifted restlessly, sensing something on the wind. This was their third outing on Shooters Hill; popular due to the fact that the road below was both well travelled and overlooked by gentle inclines on either side. Popular or not, they had avoided it until a week ago because of its close proximity to Holly Oak Hall, their crumbling family home. For the past three months, they had moved from place to place to minimize the chances of being caught and – so far – it had worked. But old Emma, their stalwart housekeeper who had been with them so long she was a member of the family, had fallen sick with a hacking cough and they were unwilling to travel anywhere until she had recovered.
At this moment, Emma’s brother Talbot was atop his great black quarter horse on the opposite rise, waiting, just as they were. Nell found comfort in the knowledge.
Beside her, Perry remained silent. Nell knew that he was mentally preparing for what lay ahead. It was usually that way with her brother; one minute chattering, the other profoundly silent as his thoughts turned inwards.
They had started their careers as amateur highwaymen – or highway
, in Nell’s case – three months before when their financial situation became so dire they were forced to eat nothing but whatever could be found on the estate. Holly Oak Hall, their family home, would undoubtedly be taken from them if they did not do something to pay off the debts that hung about the estate like carrion, eating the heart out of the place. The prospect of being homeless as
as penniless was daunting.
It had been Perry, in a fit of frustration, who had first suggested that, if they could not make an honest living, that just left a dishonest one. Truthfully, he had the background for it. God only knows, their father had used them both to help fleece fools during his card-playing career. Not only that but they had fled countless boarding houses in the dead of night, leaving unpaid accounts behind, on their seven year jaunt across Europe. Stealing, Perry had opined, was in his blood; their history was surely a criminal career in its infancy. At the time he had been half joking, but the idea quickly took root. Of course, he had only meant for himself to embark on the venture, but Nell had never been one to let her impetuous brother fall headlong into disaster, at least not without being close by to catch him and Peregrine, while possessed of many excellent qualities, did not number caution among them.
Nell huddled a little deeper in the great coat that swamped her slight figure. It was a frigid night; there would be a frost before morning. She glanced up at the three quarter moon that was riding high.
‘After this, perhaps we’d better start traveling again, find another place.’
‘We have not been here that long. Three jobs hardly make us permanent residents.’
permanent residents, Perry. Home lies just behind us.’
‘And who would think that the Marriotts of Holly Oak would be responsible?’
True enough. They had been back for six months and had kept to themselves, claiming that they were observing a year of mourning after the death of their parents. It was true, in a way, although the last thing either Geneviève or Thomas Marriott would have expected was their children to grieve for them. They had always been far too enamored with life to allow for feelings of sadness or regret. Still, shutting themselves in Holly Oak Hall meant that they did not have to find ways to pretend that they had money. They did not have to entertain, to refurbish the faded rooms, to find the food that guests would need to eat. Nell grimaced, listening as the wind soughed through the branches above their heads. This was a chancy business, even for them. ‘You heard they took Captain Night last week?’
‘Captain Night; a ridiculous name, I always thought so.’
‘That is not the point, Perry. He was on the North West Road.’ They had been planning to try that very road for their next venture.
‘He was all bluff and bluster. Probably did not plan properly, or take proper precautions. It is a bad show and he will swing for it. But you worry too much. We are not like him. We are lucky.’
Nell sighed. Perry and his luck! It was the only thing he had in common with his father, that belief in the magical force of luck. As far as she was concerned, they were just managing to stay a step ahead of the runners or the private guards that were being hired to keep the wealthy safe on the roads. How long could they continue like this?
The wind was picking up and on it came the distant sound of an approaching coach. Nell sat up a little straighter while Perry lifted a spyglass to his eye. He peered through it intently for a while. ‘A barouche pulled by a team of four. I do believe we are in luck.’
‘Two; a coachman and a footman.’
Both would be armed. Fortunately, a blunderbuss was not the easiest of weapons to wield and she and her brother had worked out that if they kept to the shadows for as long as possible, selecting an outcrop of trees as cover, they could be on the coach before the attendants could properly prepare themselves. And, of course, there was Talbot who would ride to meet it from the other side. Their usual practice was for Nell to say several yards back and take the hat off anybody who became too frisky. She was an excellent shot and could pip a playing card at twenty paces, something her brother thought vastly amusing. Nell might not know how to set a competent stitch, but she could outshoot – and possibly outride – any man he knew.
It had come in handy the first time they had waylaid a coach on Finchley Common. The coachman had tried to get clever with a pistol that he had concealed in his pocket and Perry’s life as a highwayman had almost been cut short then and there. Fortunately, Nell had seen the glint of metal in the moonlight and had shot the weapon out of his hand. Later, she had been terrified by how close her brother had come to being hurt, but Perry had laughed it off in his typically nonchalant style.
‘Live and learn. You kept an eye on me!’
But Nell knew that her eyes could not be everywhere.
Perry did the talking during their nocturnal exploits, dropping his voice to a rough, common growl that he had practiced for days. Usually Talbot came in from the other side, which had proved providential on several occasions. The whole thing was generally over within minutes. They demanded the valuables – Perry flirted a little if there was a halfway attractive female on board – and then they were gone. The faster it happened, the safer it was. Less time for those being robbed to think, less opportunity for them to make any kind of identification afterwards about who had waylaid them. Before they had begun, Nell had promised herself that it would only be for a short time, a month or so at the most, just to get past the worst of their problems, but their problems were large and that first night had brought them in enough to get the bailiffs off their backs for a month.
It had been a revelation for two desperate people who had no means to fall back on but their wits. With absolutely no qualifications to do anything but marry well, difficult as neither of them had a penny to invest in such an undertaking, the Marriott siblings had elected to take a more direct route to ease their financial burden.
Uneasily on Nell’s part, as she had craved respectability on her return to England. Enthusiastically on Perry’s, for he had always been a risk taker and had found their precarious life on the Continent a challenge to be overcome.
But the venture had proved successful.
Now, three months after they had begun, they had managed to lose the crippling debt that their careless parents had bequeathed them. Another few jobs and Nell had hopes that they might be able to begin to make their way forward, for Perry needed a wife, while she… well, Nell hadn’t actually thought past Perry needing a wife. She was twenty years of age and should have been presented at court three years ago. She had no genteel skills and doubted that any man would be keen to take on a wife that was a better shot and rider than he was. In the years that she should have been learning to play the harpsichord and embroider, she had been in Paris, then Tuscany and, finally, Florence. At least she could speak four languages.
‘Ready?’ Perry demanded happily, pulling the black kerchief up over the lower part of his face.
She said nothing, merely pulling up her own muffler and turning her big gelding’s head towards the road. As the coach approached at a fair clip, they spurred their horses forward, racing to intercept.
‘I cannot think why we had to wait so long,’ Miss. Viola Durham said plaintively. ‘Really, Grif, we will be there for two hours and then it will be time to leave.’
‘Excellent,’ her companion replied laconically.
His cousin eyed him with resentment. Viola had taken great pains to look her best tonight, wearing her new gown of French rose tulle, with lace adorning the scooped bodice. Her wealth of light brown hair had been simply dressed in the Grecian style, with several fetching curls falling across her shoulder. She had been ready to go by eight; they had set out at ten, which was utterly typical of Griffin. He never pleased anybody but himself and she supposed it was out of the question that he would go out of his way to please
But Viola had high hopes for the night ahead. She had heard that Captain Hugo Frame – currently on leave from his infantry regiment - would be attending and Viola particularly wanted an opportunity to speak with him. It had been a week since their last meeting, which had not gone as satisfactorily as Viola had hoped. She was determined that tonight would be different.
It had taken an enormous amount of persuasion to get Grif to agree to take her at all. He had said he was already committed to a party at Kew Gardens; she knew this meant that her cousin would be drinking until dawn with his disreputable friends. Viola, however, could harangue with genuine enthusiasm if the cause was just and Grif had grudgingly agreed. As she pointed out, he could always continue on to Kew after he had delivered her home again and he
vaguely promised his aunt and uncle that he would keep an eye on his cousin while they were in France.