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Authors: Alissa Johnson

Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #General

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BOOK: Tempting Fate
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“You turned out one letter, and its entire contents were centered on a dreadful musicale you were forced to attend at the Watlingtons’. I want the high points.”

“That
was
the high point,” Evie insisted. “Miss Mary Willory tripped on the hem of her skirt and upended the cellist before her head connected soundly with the back of
his chair, and by way of clarification, one letter
is
faithful correspondence where I’m concerned.”

“I know,” Mirabelle chuckled. “It’s fortunate others are fond of writing letters or I should never know what happens on your adventures.”

“Nothing happens on my adventures, that’s why I write so little. It takes up half a week of my time composing enough material to fill one page, and to be honest, a good deal of it is exaggerated—for dramatic purposes, you understand.”

“Naturally. The Miss Willory incident?”

Evie grinned wickedly. “Oh no, my recounting of that event was true down to the last blessed detail. God knows I made every effort to memorize the scene. I shall live off the memory for years.”

Mirabelle tried and failed not to smile. “I suppose we hardly do ourselves credit by sinking to her level of spitefulness. Besides, she could have been injured.”

“Oh, she was,” Evie replied, unrepentantly cheerful. “She had a lump on her forehead the size of a hen’s egg.” She smiled wistfully at the memory. “It was glorious—all black and blue and red around the edges.”

“God, that sounds painful.”

“One can only hope. And it turned the most spectacular shade of green after several days. I’ve never seen the like. I was tempted to invite her to the modiste so I might have a gown made in the same shade in honor of the occasion, but I didn’t think I could stand her company for quite so long a time.”

A rattling at the door and the appearance of a bedraggled young woman stopped Mirabelle’s reply.

“Kate!” Both girls cried, half in pleased greeting and half in dismay over her state.

Lady Kate Cole, under better circumstances, was a beauty—tall enough to wear the current high-waisted fashions with
ease, but still petite enough to appear respectably delicate—and endowed with enough curves to keep men’s eyes and thoughts off either one of those concerns. She’d had the good fortune to be born with the pale blonde hair and soft blue eyes the
ton
was currently raving over, as well as a straight blade of nose, an adorable little chin, and a perfect rosebud mouth. Normally, she was a vision. At the moment, however, her hair was half undone from its pins, hanging in damp lanks down her neck. Her dress was torn, and the front of it splattered liberally in mud.

“Oh, Kate,” Evie sighed, standing up to take her cousin’s hand. “What ever happened?”

Kate blew an errant lock out of her eyes. “I fell off my horse.”

Both Mirabelle and Evie gasped. Kate’s mishaps were common, but rarely were they dangerous.

“You what!”

“Are you hurt? Should we call for a physician?”

“Does your mother know?”

“You should sit. Immediately.”

Kate let herself be led to one of the chairs where she sat down with a disgruntled sigh. “I fell off my horse, and I’m perfectly well, I assure you. I don’t need a doctor,
or
my mother. Has anyone rung for tea, I’m in desperate need—”

“Yes, yes,” Mirabelle cried impatiently, “but are you sure you’re uninjured? Being thrown from a horse is no small matter, Kate. Maybe we should—”

Mirabelle stopped at Kate’s sheepish grimace.

“Daisy didn’t throw me,” Kate supplied reluctantly. “I fell off.”

There was a moment of silence before Evie raised her eyebrows and said, “Well, I’ll concede there is a difference.”

Kate nodded and waved at her friends to resume their seats. “I was in the east pasture, and I stopped to look at a little flower just starting to bloom quite in the middle of
nowhere, and so early as well. I thought if I could find out what it was, I could plant some of them along that far side of the walled garden that gets so little sun. You know the spot, where nothing ever seems to grow but spiny weeds and—”

“Kate,” Mirabelle admonished gently.

“Right, well…I leaned down for a closer peek and my dress, or maybe it was my heel…” She paused to look down questioningly at her feet. “Something, at any rate, caught on something else, and the next thing I knew, I was face down in the mud. Daisy was standing perfectly still.”

Evie and Mirabelle winced sympathetically. Mirabelle couldn’t help but ask one more time if she was all right.

“I’m fine. Truly,” Kate replied. “Nothing was injured besides my riding habit, which can be replaced, and my pride—which, fortunately, has developed a healthy callus over the years and shall no doubt heal completely before the day is out. Oh, and the flower. I landed on it.”

“That’s a shame,” Evie remarked.

“Rather. Now I’ll never know what it was.”

“I’m sure there are others,” Mirabelle assured her. “I think you should go change your dress before you catch a chill.”

“Oh no, it isn’t necessary. I’m dry as a bone underneath all the mud. Speaking of dresses, you look quite lovely today, Mira. Is that a new gown?”

“It is.” She plucked at the skirts. “My uncle sent his note this morning. I rather thought the dress might cheer me up.”

Kate leaned forward and grasped her hand. “You don’t have to go, you know. If you’d just tell Mother you want to stay, she’d see it done.”

Mirabelle turned her hand over and gave her friend’s a squeeze. Lady Thurston would no doubt try. Unfortunately, according to the terms set out in her parents’ will, Mirabelle’s
guardian received a yearly stipend of three hundred pounds, until she reached the age of seven-and-twenty, provided she spent a minimum of six weeks every year under his roof. Mirabelle assumed it was a precaution taken to ensure she wasn’t simply shipped off to the poor house. Good intentions that had done more harm than good.

“I know, but my uncle would make it so difficult, and I won’t bring that sort of battle into your home.”

“How much longer until the will runs out and you’re ours for good?” Evie inquired.

“Not long, less than two years.”

That knowledge had played a key factor in her decision to purchase a new gown. She would no longer need her paltry savings of eighty pounds after her twenty-seventh birthday. Her parents had evidently decided that if she hadn’t managed to land a husband by that age, it was likely she never would, and then her inheritance of five thousand pounds—currently a dowry—would be hers to do with as she pleased.

It would please her very much, she thought, to have a house of her own—where people would come to visit
her
for a change.

Her musings were interrupted when Thompson, the butler, entered the room.

“The Duke and Duchess of Rockeforte have arrived,” he informed them before wisely stepping aside as the three women made a dash for the door.

Three

T
he duke and duchess—better known to their close friends as Alex and Sophie—were, in Mirabelle’s opinion, the most delightful couple in all of England. She could see the pair now through the open front doors as they descended from the carriage—a markedly handsome man handing down a beautiful and obviously pregnant young woman.

Mirabelle had known Alex since childhood. His mother and Lady Thurston had been lifelong friends, and when a young Alex had been left orphaned, Lady Thurston had opened her doors and her heart to him and had become, in essence, a second mother. He was as tall as Whit, but a bit broader in the arms and chest. His hair was a rich coffee color, and his eyes a misty green that once had a wariness about them, but were now filled with laughter.

Mirabelle had made Sophie’s acquaintance less than two years previously, but they had become the fastest of friends in a matter of days. She was a fascinating woman, having traveled the world for years before she married Alex, and been involved in any number of outrageous adventures along the way. Her hair was a dark mahogany and her eyes a crisp blue, which, like Alex’s, usually shone bright and happy. Just now, however, they were snapping with irritation.

“While I’m sure numbness about the hands is a widely held complaint amongst women in my condition,” she was saying in a tone simply dripping with sarcasm, “I find that I am miraculously unaffected. Please hand me my reticule.”

“No.”

Mirabelle may not have recognized the language Sophie responded in, but she could fathom the content well enough. Curses had a sort of ring about them.

Sophie broke off when she caught sight of the group from the house. What followed was not the
ton
’s usual round of stilted greetings. There was no formality here as the women laughed and embraced, speaking over each other in their excitement. It was, Mirabelle thought, the way of family—of sisters and brothers.

The newcomers were ushered into the house with a great deal of noise and movement. Boxes and trunks were hauled from the carriage and into the hall, a maid was called to take coats and hats, and refreshments were offered in the parlor.

“I’m sure Alex would prefer to take his tea with Whit,” Sophie interjected before Alex could speak.

“I would, in fact, but only if you’ll promise to sit down while you take yours.” Alex grinned at his wife and planted a brief and gentle kiss on her cheek. It was an easy affection Mirabelle supposed he probably indulged in several times a day, but there was a sweetness to it that had her wondering, as she had a time or two in the past, what it might be like to know that sort of love. It was a thought she quickly pushed aside. Love was reserved for the beautiful, the lucky, and the incurably romantic. She wasn’t even remotely qualified.

Sophie pursed her lips at her husband. “Sitting
is
the usual way of taking tea.”

“So it is, but as the usual way and
your
way so rarely coincide—”

“I’ll sit,” Sophie ground out.

“Excellent. Is Whit in the study?” Alex asked Thompson.

“He is, Your Grace.”

Sophie rolled her eyes at Alex’s retreating back before walking into the parlor and—true to her word—taking a seat in an overstuffed chair.

“Would you like something to eat?” Evie asked as Kate poured tea.

Sophie groaned and pressed a hand to her belly. “I can’t. I just can’t.”

Mirabelle felt a sliver of alarm at her friend’s pained expression. “Are you unwell? Is something wrong?”

“I’m in perfect health,” Sophie assured her. “It’s only that I’ve eaten more in the last six months than I have in the whole of my lifetime. It’s Alex. The man won’t stop feeding me. It’s some sort of horrible illness with him. ‘Have some stew, Sophie. A few more carrots, Sophie. Just one more bite of fish, Sophie, one more piece of toast, one more slice of…’” She straightened in her chair. “Are those lemon tarts?”

“Er…yes.”

“Thank God.” Sophie snagged one, bit in, and spoke around the food. “If he’d foist this sort of food on me, I’d be less inclined to complain, but it isn’t desserts with him. It’s pounds and pounds—tons, really—of breads and meat and vegetables. Mother of God, the vegetables. The man’s so bloody careful. Do you have any idea how long it took us to reach here?”

Three heads shook in unison.

“Four days,” Sophie informed them, taking another bite. “Four endless days, and we not forty miles from Haldon. He made our driver stop every two hours so I could rest. Have you ever heard anything so ridiculous? And he was a dreadful traveling companion, let me tell you. I couldn’t so much as shift in the seat without him fussing over me, or calling out to our man to have a care with the ruts in the road. Not that there were any ruts, mind you, or that we’d enough speed to have felt them if there were, the man’s simply come unhinged.”

“I’m surprised he agreed to let you come at all,” Evie ventured.

“Oh, he didn’t initially. There was a…discussion.” Sophie’s expression went from exasperated to grim as she set down the remainder of the tart. “Good Lord, listen to me. He’s driven me to ranting. It won’t do. I have to get away from him, for a few hours at the very least. I beg of you, help me.”

“Why don’t we go into Benton for a bit of shopping,” Evie suggested. “Mirabelle needs a bonnet and gloves to go with her new dress—matching reticule as well if one can be found.”

“I certainly do not,” Mirabelle objected on a laugh. She held up a hand before Evie could argue. “But I’m not averse to purchasing something small. Something small, pretty, and pointless.” She reached for a tart and bit in. “I rather feel like pampering myself.”

“For once,” Evie commented.

“Alex will want to join us.” Sophie pointed out.

“Well, we’ll simply have to find an excuse to become separated,” Evie said. “Take him aside at some point and tell him you need to purchase some clothing items of an embarrassingly feminine nature.”

“Oh, he’ll
insist
on joining me for that.”

“Well then, tell him
I
need to purchase some clothing items of an embarrassingly feminine nature.”

“That, I think, should do it,” Sophie agreed with a grin as Kate and Mirabelle laughed. “
Do
you need them?”

Evie merely shrugged. “One can never have too many undergarments, so it needn’t be a lie.”

They were still laughing when Whit poked his head in the door. “Ladies…imp…Alex and I are for—”

“Benton,” Kate piped in and shot a covert glance at Sophie. “Sophie has expressed an interest in Mrs. Gage’s pastries. You don’t mind do you, Whit?”

Whit frowned at the food the servants had brought into the room. He opened his mouth, but Sophie—devious and
clever girl that she was—cut off any argument by lifting her hand to run gentle circles across her extended belly.

“I don’t wish to be a bother,” she said with a soft voice and angelic smile. “But I’m simply ravenous for something…” Her eyes scanned the plates in the room. “Chocolate. There doesn’t seem to be any here.”

“You’re not a bother,” Whit replied. In the manner of men who have limited experience with expectant mothers, he was exceedingly careful to keep his gaze on her face, or over her shoulder, or anywhere other than the obvious mound under her dress. “If you want Mrs. Gage’s pastries, you’ll have them. Alex and I will ride into town—”

BOOK: Tempting Fate
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