Julia pressed her handkerchief to her lips and leaned closer to the door of the coach, giving every appearance of a woman entranced with the passing scenery. In truth, she was merely trying to gain some much-needed distance from her fellow travelers, none of whom it seemed had ever taken the time to become intimately acquainted with the act of bathing.
The coach lurched violently as it traversed the rutted road, and Julia's stomach lurched along with it. In retrospect, she found herself exceedingly glad she'd been unable to eat a bite ever since word of the Duke's imminent engagement reached her ears. She sighed with deep melancholy, blinking back her tears and continuing to stare out the window. The English countryside flew jerkily by as the coach carried her farther and farther from Netherloin, from her home, from Ward, from the heartbreak that was Colin Darcy, Ninth Duke of Earl.
Oh, how could she have been so mistaken in his character? Or been so foolish to imagine he'd ever condescend to wed with one such as she? She was naught but a lowly governess in his eyes, never mind that she'd been raised the daughter of a nobleman! Oh, Colin! If only you knew!
She had been so certain his adventures on the high seas had left their mark upon the duke. He seemed so different than before, and when his eyes met hers above that exceedingly greasy-looking haunch of venison that had been set before him, she was sure she read something lurking in their murky depths. How was she to have known it was merely hunger?
“Find his ferret, indeed!” she muttered though clenched teeth. She'd no doubt that was just the sort of sordid euphemism gentlemen employed to describe their acts of indelicate indecency. If she ever had the ill luck to come face to face with the blackguard again, she'd tell him exactly what she thought of his libertine behavior. Then she'd...yes. She'd take her knee to his ferret—see if she wouldn't! That would make him think twice, would it not? It would certainly give him pause the next time he considered suggesting to any well-brought-up young lady that she might wish to engage with him in vulgar, disgusting pastimes.
She was so caught up in her anger—and thoughts of revenge—that the commotion outside the coach quite failed to penetrate her consciousness. It wasn't until shots were fired and the carriage pitched to a most precipitous stop that she was recalled to her present surroundings.
She glanced around her, surprised to see that the other occupants, who had all been much less distracted, it appeared, were now engaged in a most peculiar activity. To a man they were frantically rummaging through their carry on bags, pulling out gold coins and other small valuables and stuffing them into their mouths.
“Here now,” she said in alarm. “What are you all doing?” Whatever it was, it looked quite un-hygenic and likely injurious to their health!
“We've been waylaid by highwaymen!” the man beside her explained around a mouthful of Spanish dubloons. “If you've anything of value about you that you don't wish to lose, you might want to take the precaution of swallowing it.”
“It's the Dread Highwayman Roberts!” exclaimed another, turning from the window, his face deadly white.
Julia's heart began to race. “Oh, surely not?” How had it come to this? How had her calm and orderly life become so disrupted? It was the duke's fault, surely! Another black sin to lay at his door. Another very valid reason for her to knee him in the ferret. Repeatedly. As hard as she could. She only prayed Providence would allow her to live long enough to make the attempt!
“The Dread Highwayman Roberts takes no prisoners!” said another of the passengers, fairly gasping in fright.
Well, that made good sense, Julia had to admit, even as she quailed to hear it. What sensible highwayman would wish to be saddled with a great lot of unwashed and unruly prisoners, after all?
The door of the coach opened and the coachman appeared. “Miss, could I ask you to step out of the coach now, please? There's a gentleman here as wishes to speak with you.”
Julia stared at the man in alarm. “Look now, if this is about the fare I owe you...”
“No Ma'am,” the coachman replied, growing red in the face. “It's naught to do with that. It's just...well, it's the highwayman, Miss. He says as how he's willing to let the rest of us go unharmed if we turn you over to him.”
So it was the highwayman who wished to “speak” with her? Julia pressed a trembling hand to her chest in an effort to still her racing heart. She was now convinced that, truly, her day could get no worse. No doubt this accursed highwayman would also have a ferret in need of finding.
“Well, hurry up, Miss,” the man beside her urged. “You don't want to keep the man waiting, do you?”
“Have you no decency?” she demanded, glaring at each of her fellow passengers in turn. “Is there not a proper English gentleman among you, someone willing to defend a lady's honor?”
Silence met her question, broken eventually by a nervous-looking young man near the door who offered cautiously, “Women and children first?”
His pronouncement was met with nods of approval from the others.
“Hear, hear!” said one.
“Quite so!” murmured another.
“God save the King!” intoned a third.
“Well, really!” Julia exclaimed. Recognizing that there was no help for it, she gathered her things together. She exited the coach with her head held high, determined to meet her fate with dignity and bravery and all those other sterling qualities her former coach-mates so obviously lacked.
The highwayman waited, regarding her silently, his features hidden by the darkness and even more so by the mask he wore.
Julia's courage nearly failed her as she looked upon him, sitting there so tall and...and, and-- well, really, tall pretty much summed it up, upon his (also very tall) black horse.
“Hand her up to me,” the highwayman said, addressing the coachman. “Carefully, now.”
Julia stiffened. That voice! She knew that voice...didn't she? Yes. No. Yes! Well, maybe...
She barely even noticed when the coachman lifted her. Then the strong arm of the highwayman reached down and pulled her up. He seated her across his lap. His arm wrapped around her waist, securing her there. She peered anxiously at his features, concealed behind the very nicely crafted, lavender-scented mask he wore.
The coachman cleared his throat. “Uh...sir? If it pleases you...?”
“Yes, yes,” the highwayman replied, waving him away without a glance. His eyes remained fixed on Julia's face. “Off with you now!”
That voice again! Julia's breath caught. “I know you.”
“Do you?” The highwayman's smile mocked her.
Julia nodded. “Your cruelty reveals everything.”
The duke-slash-highwayman's eyes flashed angrily. “You dare speak to me of cruelty?” he asked as his hand tightened on the reins. “After the merry chase you've led me this evening?”
In answer, Julia nudged him sharply with her hip. “Tell me, your grace, is that a ferret in your pocket, or are you simply happy to see me?”
The horse stamped uneasily. Confusion stole across the duke's features—those that weren't hidden behind his mask, that is. “Why would I keep a ferret in my pocket?” he asked, his voice puzzled. Julia nudged him again, even more sharply this time. The duke jumped. “Blast it, woman, stop squirming! If you don't sit still you're liable to make my pistol go off in my bloody pants!”
“Oh, sir!” Julia's cheeks grew warm, mortification had her averting her gaze from his face. “For shame! Such vulgar language to use in the presence of a lady!”
If possible, the duke looked even more perplexed. To Julia's horror, he removed his arm from around her waist and proceeded to put his hand into his pants. Maidenly modesty forced Julia to press her hands tightly to her eyes. Feminine curiosity had her peeking between her fingers.
“This pistol,” the duke explained as his hand reappeared holding a very real, actual gun. “Which, due to Wickham-- that is, my uncle’s—criminal actions, I am forced to carry, was most precariously and uncomfortably positioned.”
Julia clutched at his arms. “But, Your Grace, why are you forced to carry a gun?”
“Because that blasted Wick— uncle of mine hid my sword.”
“But why go about armed at all? Are you in danger? Has it anything to do with your pirating adventures, the ones you can't talk about?”
“Er...yes,” the duke replied somewhat distractedly. “Exactly so.” He patted his pockets and glanced fretfully around, obviously looking for a new place to secure his pistol.
“Will this do?” Julia asked shyly, holding up her reticule.
“Capital!” the duke replied, happily relinquishing his weapon. He settled his arm around her waist again and dug his heels lightly into his horse's flanks. “Very well now, let's be off.”
“But Your Grace,” Julia demurred. “This seems highly irregular. Where are you taking me?”
“I'm taking you straight to the closest parson so that we may be married immediately—before you've a chance to run off on me again.”
“Married!” Julia stared at him in surprise. “You don't wish to be married to me! What about...Lady Chastity?”
“Lady Chastity be damned,” said the duke. “I'd have to be dicked in the nob to get myself riveted to that bit of muslin. You're the one for me, my dear, and I won't take no for an answer.”
“But you said you hadn't proposed to me!”
“Well, I hadn't a chance! I wanted to and all, but...well, it seemed somewhat hasty. We'd only just met.”
Only just met? Julia frowned. “Your Grace, I've been in your employ for some time now.”
“Again. We'd only just met again. After my er...my return from the, uh, sea. Pirates and whatnot. What you'd said before.”
“Oh, of course.” Julia nodded sympathetically. Her poor, poor duke. What he must have gone through to return so strangely changed! Maybe someday he'd feel himself able to tell her some of the horrors he'd faced. “Well, then, if you really mean it this time, I accept.”
“Capital.” His eyes gleaming, the duke slanted his lips over hers.
Julia sighed happily. “Oh, Colin,” she murmured against his lips. “I'm so very happy.”
The duke stiffened. His arms tightened viciously around her. “Forget Colin,” he growled in warning tones. “Call me Your Grace.”
Julia thrilled to the unexpected hint of danger. She nestled closer against him. “Yes, Your Grace.”
A short while later, the newly married Duchess of Earl sat at a small writing desk in one of the rooms her new husband had procured for them in a local inn. It had been a very small wedding, with no one in attendance but the parson and his clerk, but quite lovely withal. Her only sorrow was that she had no one with whom to share her joy.
Oh, of course, she'd tell Ward as soon as she returned home to Nertherloin, and she didn't doubt he'd be happy for her. But she missed her dear sister, lost now beneath the waves. As children they'd always so looked forward to their wedding days and laughingly made bets about which of them would end as an old maid.
Blinking back her tears, Julia put pen to paper. It didn't matter that her sister would never get the missive acquainting her with her Julia's joyful tidings. Julia would write her a letter just the same. Then she'd...yes. She'd place the letter in an empty bottle—there had to be one around here somewhere—and toss it into the sea. It was fitting, really. At sea was the last place she'd seen her sister, after all.
As she thought about it, she was quite overcome with emotion again. Needing some form of solace, she focused her gaze on her wedding ring. Where had Colin—His Grace—acquired it? Surely, the ducal estate could never afford anything this expensive! The gemstone, which had obviously been newly reset, looked oddly like one of the diamonds Lady Chastity had been wearing. It must be paste, she decided at last. But a sweet gesture on her husband's part all the same.
Her courage renewed, she took up her pen once more. No, sadly, Quinn would never get to read her words, but perhaps someone would. Some anonymous soul who'd happen upon the bottle and take the time to read the letter she was now about to write. It made Julia smile to think of this stranger, someone whom she'd never know yet who would, somehow, share her joy.
And so she began her letter to her unknown correspondent, “Reader, I married him...”
****A Word to you, Our Dear and Gentle Readers: If you enjoyed this small offering, please do us the honor of returning to grace our humble blog with your presence one week hence, when we shall be delighted to bring to you the next installment of our little saga, which is to be entitled, Chapter Ten, A Conspiratorial Interlude.
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The Naughty Nine
Click here to read Chapter Nine-A