How to Capture a Duke(6)

By: Bianca Blythe

She pulled a pamphlet titled Matchmaking for Wallflowers from below the stack of romances. Her sister had given it to her last year, and Fiona skimmed the bright pages that showed cheerful women wearing pince-nez grasping the arms of tall Corinthians. It was unlikely there would be anything of use, but she flung the pamphlet into her satchel.

She heaved on her woolen cloak. She yanked her sturdiest boots over her calves and tied the laces with an expertise most women of her class took pride in lacking. Her lady’s maid had long resigned herself to taking more time assisting Fiona with her special projects than with the clothes she’d been trained for.

Fiona exited her bedroom and descended the staircase.

Fiona bade a hasty farewell to Grandmother, told her she might spend the night at her sister’s estate, and then departed the manor house before Grandmother could bombard her with questions. Perhaps Rosamund might offer her some advice.

She marched toward the stables. The wind slammed against her, and the thick auburn curls that made even the most somber outfits seem ridiculous and were impossible to tame spilled from her hood. She nodded at the groom. “Please prepare Ned.”

“But the weather—”

“I’ll be fine.”

The groom stiffened. “Very well, m’lady. Shall I accompany you?”

She shook her head. She traveled with a knife, and she had little inclination to force the groom to ride in this weather to preserve her reputation, when riding with a man might also damage it. “I’ll ride astride.”

The groom nodded, accustomed to her eccentricities. She sighed. She couldn’t even present herself as a fine lady to her servants; no wonder she’d failed so miserably as a debutante.

The wind gathered in more force, thrusting its way through the trees, tearing any remaining leaves down. Dull orange carpeted the ground, and the leaves scraped her boots with each new gust.

Fiona shifted her legs, but before she could reconsider, Ned stood before her. The mare’s brown coat gleamed, and she stroked the horse’s face. The groom assisted her onto the saddle.

Fiona gave a curt nod and urged Ned forward.

Harsh wind brushed against her, and her curls toppled from her hat anew. She pressed her hand against the furry contraption, but the wind continued to bluster, tearing off her hat. Red locks swirled before her eyes, and she raked her hand through her hair, conscious of the groom’s eyes still fixed on her. One benefit of having a large estate was that there were few men to scandalize with her reluctance to ride sidesaddle. Even Marie Antoinette had at one time favored riding astride, and she did not have an archaeological site to tend to.

She moved Ned into a trot toward the site. Shots fired sporadically in the distance, accompanying the sound of Ned’s steady trot. The peasants wanted Christmas dinner, and it seemed everyone had seen the threatening clouds that hovered over the horizon.

The narrow lane sliced through the forest, and Fiona tightened her grip on the reins, careful not to disturb Ned. The days were too short at this time of year, and though it was not yet dark—she wouldn’t have been riding had it been—the light was dimmer and duller than she would have favored.

If Fiona were prone to swearing, she would be cursing like a sailor.

For the first time Fiona wished she were not in Yorkshire. Heavens, she would adore to be in London right now. Were she in the capital, swarming as it was with men, she might just possibly find someone desperate enough to pose as a fiancé. Perhaps she might find success by standing outside gaming halls. Or simply by throwing Grandfather’s remaining money up in the air.

Few men resided in this section of Yorkshire, and she wagered she wouldn’t even be able to find a stable hand willing to play the strong, silent type. Perhaps if she invented some sort of condition that explained why he couldn’t speak . . . Goodness, it was hopeless.

If word circulated she’d attempted to convince a servant to pretend to be her fiancé, she would be barred from ever reentering society.

The trees cast shadows over the dirt path, and she glanced upward. In the springtime the branches of the trees touched and created a net of pale green leaves and pastel blossoms. Now gaps existed between the stout branches and revealed the gray sky, and the even darker clouds that sailed over it.

This is an ideal day for an accident.

Fiona shivered and forced the image of a coach careening into a boulder from her mind. But it was hard to be successful in doing that, when all she could envision were wheels collapsing and a steel frame bending and twisting, clutching the less flexible figures of its inhabitants.

She inhaled and urged the horse forward. She avoided coaches when she could. No closed, dark rides for her.

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