Corseting The Earl
127 pages
English

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127 pages
English

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Description

Pippa Nickle is a merchant’s daughter who has made a grave mistake. When the chance to leave her little town to help with a cousin’s nuptials arises, Pippa hops on a mail coach grateful the trip will buy her some time to figure out what to do about her predicament. That is until she ends up seated across from a Mrs. Percephany Doyale who is not exactly what she appears. Lord Heath Sedgewick has been put in charge of finding the ringleader to the corrupt faction willing to kill to put Queen Charlotte on the throne. When he meets Miss Pippa Nickle he is hard pressed to decide if she is a friend, or a foe. Either way, falling for the doe eyed girl is not part of his mission. Can Pippa be trusted to keep Heath’s secret? Or will falling in love expose them both?

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Publié par
Date de parution 17 avril 2016
Nombre de lectures 2
EAN13 9781772990775
Langue English

Informations légales : prix de location à la page 0,0032€. Cette information est donnée uniquement à titre indicatif conformément à la législation en vigueur.

Exrait

Corseting the Earl
 
By Killarney Sheffield
 
Digital ISBNs
EPUB 9781772990775
Kindle 9781772990782
WEB 9781772990799
 
Print ISBN 9781772990805
 

Copyright 2016 by Killarney Sheffield
Cover art by Michelle Lee
 
All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, nopart of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introducedinto a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by anymeans (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, orotherwise) without the prior written permission of the copyrightowner and the above publisher of this book.
 
Dedication
 
For all those women who would secretly loveto torture their significant others in women’s fashion for a day.Come on, you know you would!
Chapter One
 
The minister droned on and on, his voicepunctuated here and there by the drone of a bee, or particularlylarge fly. The stale odor of perfume, sweat and pew polishassaulted her dry sinuses. Fighting the urge to sigh, Pippa peeredaround the church. Old Mrs. Phelps was asleep in the second pew,her chin to her chest, a bright orange hat covered in yellow birdstilted to the side and in danger of falling off altogether. Shestifled a giggle and glanced back at Mr. Henny in the fourth row.Though his gaze was fixed on the ceiling, she knew he was payingclose attention to the sermon of hell-fire and sin that was aregular favorite of the minister. She flipped open her fan as atrickle of sweat slid down her cheek. A cool dip in the pond wouldbe most welcome right about now. Turning her attention back to thefront she focused on the back of Mitchel Land’s head. His golden,cherub like curls were perfect as always. There wasn’t a girl intown who didn’t fawn over those delicate ringlets, or envythem.
Her fingers twisted in the limp ruffle on herdress. How would he take her news? Her stomach wound into amatching knot. He loved her, she knew he did. Had he not professedit on many occasions beneath the old oak tree by the pond? Theywould run off to Gretna Green and be married. A sigh of headyexpectation escaped her. She could not wait for their lives tobegin. No more lowly shop keeper’s daughter. Her new home would bethe impressive mansion on the hill overlooking the town. Everyonewould look up to her. She would be treated with the utmost respect,no matter her marriage was a little quick. Yes, she would be theHonorable Mrs. Philippa Land.
The minister finished his sermon to a heatwilted round of “amen.” Pippa stood and followed her family fromthe quaint little church in the middle of town. As usual they weresurrounded by well-wishers enquiring about her father’s leg, andshe took the opportunity to slip away. Upon spying Mitchel headingaround side of the church she followed, hurrying to catch up withhim.
“Mitchel,” she called in a soft voice, leastshe draw the attention of the elders gathered by the steps.
Mitchel turned, his tawny eyes sparking withannoyance. “Good day, Philippa.”
It struck her as odd he did not greet herwith closeted affection. Was he angry with her for cutting theirlast secret meeting short? She smiled her sweetest smile. “I wantedto tell you something.”
He glanced around and then frowned, his eyesnow devoid of emotion. “I have found someone new, Philippa.”
Pippa stood in stunned silence. It took aminute before she found her tongue and glared at him, her fingersclenching in the skirts of her pink Sunday best muslin. “You arejust being sore because I cut our last tryst short and my papadidn’t invite your father to the harvest dance.”
Mitchel picked an imaginary speck of lint offhis fine blue wool waistcoat. “Ha, why my father would not soil hisgloves at one of those peasant squalls. Besides, you know he wouldnot approve of me courting a merchant’s daughter. It is far beneathmy station, you know.”
It was at that moment Philippa wondered justwhat she had ever seen in the stuck up squire’s son. Surely, he washandsome, his golden curls, soft face and dimples marking him aseasily the best looking boy around, but was that all he had goingfor him, besides his father’s wealth? Had she had stars in her eyeswhen he paid her favor? Oh, how could she have fallen for him? Andnow she was in trouble and she doubted he was the one to help her. Papa is going to be so angry with me….
If the crowd of well-dressed church goersmingling about the steps should hear, it would be a disaster. Sheglanced at the older lady with a quizzing glass dangling from herbony fingers and grimaced. Mrs. Peabody delighted in spreadingrumors, and this one would be extra juicy, to say the least.Screwing up her courage she stepped closer and lowered her voice.“Mitchel, I am with child.”
His normal droopy eyed expression widened,his cornflower blue eyes practically bulging from their sockets.“Are you sure?”
With grim conviction she nodded. “I missed mymonthly and…well, I have felt queasy three mornings in a row. Ialmost spewed at my mother’s feet this morning, but excused myselfin time to wretch out behind Mrs. Tow’s chicken coop under theguise of helping search for her missing hen.”
Mitchel’s face paled, making his golden curlsseem brassy. “But we only…rolled in the hay once…. ’Tis entirelyunlikely the child is mine.”
Fury rose in Philippa at his betrayal. “Ofall the nerve!” She glanced over at the crowd by the steps in timeto see Mrs. Peabody raise her quizzing glass to her eye. Loweringher voice she hissed, “You know well and good I have never givenmyself to any other. I am not that sort of female.”
He gave her a smug look. “Do I? You gaveyourself to me now, didn’t you?”
“That was different and you know it! Why, youled me to believe you were going to ask my father for my hand, youlying cad,” she whispered.
“As my father would say, why buy the cow whenyou can have the milk for the taking, Pippa?”
Despair and anger swirled inside and shefought to keep from either pummeling him with her fists, orbursting into tears. “I will tell your father and he will insistyou marry me.”
Mitchel laughed at her childish whine. “As ifmy father would believe the sad tale of a mere merchant’s daughter.Why, he knows I’ve been courting Miss Hardisty for many months now.He will simply cast aside your lies and your reputation will bequite tarnished. Your poor parents will be devastated that youwould try and blame your fallen virtue on one so much more aboveyour station. Why, I bet they would be shunned by the whole town aswell.” His eyes narrowed. “I would see you and yours run out ofthis town, Pippa, before I would admit to that child being mine.Just think how it would hurt your parents, their only daughter,carrying a bastard in her belly. How dreadful.”
This nasty side of Mitchel’s personality wasone she had never seen, and she didn’t like it one bit. Pippapulled herself up tall and looked him in the eye. “Oh, but justthink of the damage to your reputation if I insist this child isyours, Mitchel. Why, your precious Miss Hardisty, second daughterof an earl, would refuse your suit before you could blink.”
He snagged her wrist and twisted it. “Youwould not dare.”
She swallowed, trying hard to be brave. “Iwould.”
Scowling, he tightened his grip until shewhimpered in pain. “Do you ever wonder what happened to Mary Baglo,Pippa?”
“She—she ran off.”
“Did she? What if I told you she did not runaway? Hmm?” He reached out and ran a gloved finger down her cheek.“She claimed to have found herself in very much the same positionas you.” When she gasped, he smirked. “Oh yes, the silly chitthought to tell my father and anyone else who would listen, but Istilled her tongue. After I strangled her, I stuffed her in aburlap sack weighed down with rocks, and sunk her in Chester’sPond.” An evil sneer rode his thin lips. “So much for telling herlittle tale, eh?”
“You lie!” Lips quivering she glanced overher shoulder, hoping no one suspected their volatile conversation,yet at the same time wishing someone would and come to her aid.
When she caught her father’s eye he motionedto her and then said good-bye to the pastor and his wife. “Pippa,come along now.”
Pippa jerked her wrist from Mitchel andrubbed it. “I do not believe you.”
Mitchel sniggered. “Meet me this afternoon onthe west side of the pond and I will prove it to you then.”
Her father’s voice, ripe with annoyance,interrupted her retort. “Pippa, I will not wait all day.”
“I have to go.” With that she hurried in thedirection of her mother and father.
Her father shifted on his crutches as sheapproached with a disapproving look. “Pippa, ’tis bad enough youwere talking to a boy unchaperoned, but to keep me waiting when youknow how badly my leg pains me, is just inconsiderate.”
Pippa resisted the urge to snap at herfather, sparing him the anger caused by her own foolishpredicament. “I am sorry, Papa.”
“Really, dear, I am sure there is no harmdone talking with a boy in a public place such as church,” Pippa’smother interjected and then guided him to the less crowdedsidewalk. “Come along now, you are just being cross because it istime for your dose of laudanum. I know you are sore darling. Do nottake your temper out on Pippa. After all, ’tis not her fault youtumbled off the ladder now.”
Pippa grimaced as she followed behind hertut-tutting mother. It pretty much was her fault, actually. If herbulky skirts hadn’t interfered with her ability to climb the ladderto reach the dried berries on the top shelf needed for a customer,it would have been she on the rickety ladder. And, if she had toadmit it, if she had not been focused on Mitchel escorting MissHardisty down the street past the store window, she might not havefailed to steady the ladder when it tilted, spilling her father tothe floor, thus causing him to break his leg. As usual she hadcaused a disaster…and if word got out she was with child, anotherone would instill. What am I going to do?
She glanced over her shoulder and caughtMitchel’s eye. With a sneer he pinched the bridge of his nose andheld his breath as if diving. No, she couldn’t tell, for thoughpart of her didn’t believe Mitchel’s claim of murder, she couldn’trefute it either. After all, Mary had simply vanished without atrace. Even her parents claimed to have no idea where.
Pippa returned her gaze to the sidewalk. Herparents would cast her out when they learned she was with child.And she couldn’t very well tell them it was Mitchel’s and see themlose everything. And even if Mitchel’s father did believe herstory, did she really want to be forced into marriage to amurderer? Her only option was to run away, but where and how,without any coin?
Her mother drew her alongside. “Oh Pippa,darling, I quite forgot to tell you. Your cousin, Marcy is gettingmarried. Now, I had promised your Aunt Beth I would help with allthe arrangements, but, well, I see no way to leave your poor fatherin such a state, so I offered you in my stead. I know you havesimply been dying to get out of this town and see something of theworld. You will take my place?”
Dying to get out of town was anunderstatement. She shivered and then smiled at her mother. “Iwould be delighted to go in your stead, Mama.” At least a monthaway attending the wedding details would buy her some time to comeup with a plan.
 
Chapter Two
 
Philippa pushed a wisp of wavy chestnut hairbehind her ear for the third time. As usual it had already escapedher tidy bun. What she wouldn’t give for smooth golden curls likeMitchel’s. If she were to be honest, that is what had attracted herand every other girl in the village, to him in the first place.
“Mayhap I should not let you go, Pippa. Youare so young and naïve for such a long journey alone.”
Roused from her mental wander, Pippa sighedand then smiled at her mother. “I will be fine, Mama. What couldpossibly happen to me on a public coach?”
Her stout mother straightened Pippa’s bonnet.“I suppose you are right. I would not even consider you going in mystead, but with your dear pa laid up with a broken leg, there is noother choice.”
“You worry too much.” Philippa pressed alight kiss to her mother's cheek. “I will be fine. Aunt Beth needsme to help with Marcy’s wedding plans.”
“You should be the one getting married,dear.” Pity marred her mother’s expression.
Philippa bit her lip. If her mama found outher secret, she would be thrown from her own door. “Mama,please.”
Her mother’s normally sweet features turnedstony and sour. “I still cannot believe the squire’s boy threw youover for the earl’s second daughter. Why, the pock faced girl canbarely fit through the door. What does she have to offer comparedto you?”
With a black look Philippa held back heranswer. Money. Who wants to marry a poor shop keeper’sdaughter? “Mama, I will make a far better match when Papa getsback on his feet.”
“Of course you will, dear. Anyway, yourbrother Samuel’s wife will be here in a day or so to help me in theshop, and by Yule time your Papa’s leg will be mended.” She pattedPhilippa’s hand with a twinkle in her eye. “Besides, there is agood chance you might meet a fine young man in Bracenville.”
“Perhaps so, Mama.” The rumble of wagonwheels outside announced the arrival of the neighbor who was to seeher to the coach station on the outside of town on his way to themill. “The Beckers are here, Mama, I better go.” Giving her mothera last kiss on her cheek she picked up her carpet bag and hurrieddownstairs.
Her father sat in his worn chair in the cozyparlor, his leg propped on a crooked three legged stool. “Are youoff on your adventure, Pippa, my darling girl?”
“Yes, Papa.” Philippa stopped to kiss hisforehead. “Do not be too cross with Mama’s hoovering. You know sheloves you.”
He brushed her away with a light-heartedscowl. “The woman will be the death of me yet.”
She laughed. “You say that, but you would belost without her, Papa, admit it.” She took in her father’sprofile. A right handsome man he still was, though a little grey atthe temples; his dark hair still shined with a blueish luster, hisjaw clean of whiskers, strong and square. His eyes wereunforgettable dark green orbs flecked with gold, which danced inthe light. Mama hadn’t cared that marrying a mere Irish merchantwas a social faux paus. It was no wonder her mama had fallen headover heels in love with him. So much so she gave up everything tobecome his wife. Pippa could only dream of a love that strong.
Papa broke her musing with a chuckle. “Aye,God favored me the day I was smitten by your ma’s smile. Now get onwith you. You packed the new dress I got you for yourbirthday?”
“Yes, Papa, but I wish you would not havespent such a costly sum when we can ill afford it right now.”
He grinned. “I want you to look nice, in caseyou meet some fine young man in Bracenville.”
She squeezed his hand. “I know, Papa. I willsee you in a few weeks.” With that she headed for the door, tearswelling up in her eyes. She had never been away from home for morethan a night in all her twenty years, and the idea was a littledisconcerting. When she stepped from the house she found Mr. Beckerloading her trunk. He gave her a stern look and then took hercarpet bag and set it in the wagon box too. Holding out his hand hehelped her in to perch on the trunk for the ride to the other endof town, where the mail coach would arrive. His six girls, rangingin age from two to thirteen, sat amidst the straw lining the wagonbed.
Clara, the oldest smiled. “Ma saysBracenville is within a day’s ride of London.”
Her father climbed up onto the wagon seatbeside his thin wife and snapped the reins to urge the mule teamforward.
“Yes, it is.”
The girl’s eyes widened. “Will you get to goto a big ball there?”
Philippa smiled. “No, I am afraid not. Idoubt I will even see London. There are many things to do to getready for my cousin’s wedding.”
“Someday I’m gonna’ go to London.” Claraglanced at her father's back. “I’m gonna’ marry a prince,” shewhispered.
Resisting the urge to laugh Philippa smiledinstead. “A prince only marries a princess, Clara.”
The girl shrugged. “I’ll marry someone veryrich there, one day.”
Philippa let the comment slide and rearrangedthe skirts on her rose-colored traveling dress. Her mind wanderedto the emerald green confection of silk and gold ribbons her fatherpresented her for her birthday. It was by far the prettiest gownshe ever owned. She felt like a princess just trying it on. Hermother packed the delicate item in tissue paper and placed it ontop of all the things in Philippa’s trunk so it would not crease onthe journey. She was hard pressed not to take it out again andagain over the last few days to run her fingers over the expensivefabric. It was her good fortune the lady who commissioned the dressdecided against it at the last moment. Though her father still paida large sum for the outfit, he managed to purchase it at adrastically reduced price. Still, knowing how tight things werethis year, with her father’s broken leg; Philippa could not helpfeeling guilty over something she would only wear once at hercousin’s wedding. Or possibly her own wedding someday, her motherhad gushed. Too bad that was unlikely to happen now. Who would weda girl with loose virtue, never mind one with a bastard child intow? She had made a terrible mistake thinking Mitchel loved her.Mitchel loved Mitchel, period.
She scanned the town. A single street houseda bakery, their general store, the cobblers, inn, dressmaker,church, blacksmith-livery, mill and the boarding house. The townwas the only one she had ever known, and she was excited to seewhat delights a larger one like Bracenville offered. She clutchedher mother’s reticule to her which held the precious two shillingsshe saved from helping teach Sunday school. It was not much, butshe hoped enough to purchase a new pair of gloves to go with thefancy dress. The short-capped sleeves could not hide the age of herworn gloves. She glanced down at the small stain on them, partiallyhidden by the sleeve of her traveling dress, and moped.
They pulled up behind the coach-and-fourwhich delivered the mail each week. Mr. Becker helped her down andhanded her trunk and carpet bag up to be secured to the top. Whenhe was done, he tipped his hat. “Safe trip to you, MissNickle.”
“Thank you, Mr. Becker.” The postmasteropened the door to the coach as her neighbor climbed back onto hiswagon and clucked to his team. Philippa peered into the closeconfines of the shabby mail carrier. The worn red velvet seats werethread bare and uncomfortable looking, but at least it was empty.She climbed in, wrinkling her nose at the stale odor of whiskey andcigar smoke and arranged her skirts on the lumpy seat. The door wasshut behind her and within moments the four horse hitch was whippedinto motion.
 
* * *
 
At the next town they pulled up before aneglected inn to deliver the mail. The thatched roofing sagged inthe middle, the shutters hung in disarray and the windows were greywith grime. Silently she thanked her lucky stars she would not haveto stay the night at such a place. The trip to Bracenville wouldtake most of the day and they would arrive after dark, but not toolate to need over-night accommodation.
After a few moments the coach door opened. Alarge woman was handed up into the conveyance. She glanced atPippa, gave a brief smile and collapsed into the forward facingseat opposite with a un-lady-like grunt.
Pippa smiled back. “Good day.”
The woman cleared her throat before returningher greeting in a rough voice. “Good day.” She settled a largecarpet bag at her feet and peered out the window with an anxiousexpression, as they pulled out onto the main road, and then fussedwith her heavy canary yellow skirts.
They rode in silence for a while. Bored,Pippa tried to strike up a conversation. “I am Philippa Nickle, buteveryone calls me, Pippa…well my family that is. I am headed forBracenville. Where are you headed on such a fine day?”
Again the woman cleared her throat. “Mrs.Percephany Doyle. I am headed for London,” she answered in ahoarse, slightly unfeminine voice. She cleared her throat again andtugged at the froth of lace around her throat.
Pippa smiled and pulled a flask of hermother’s sore throat remedy from her reticule. “You sound like youcould use some of my mama’s elixir.” She held out the littlebottle. “It will help your sore throat and cure just about anythingelse that ails you, according to my pa.”
Percephany reached out a meaty hand and tookthe bottle with a grimacing smile. “Thank you.” After taking a swigshe handed it back, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand.
Retrieving the bottle, Pippa hid her distastefor the woman’s lack of manners and stowed it back in her reticule.“Are you going to visit someone?”
“No, I have business there.” Percephanycleared her throat again and turned to stare out the window.
Pippa studied her with a covert stare. Thetower of blonde curls pinned under a faded straw bonnet lookedstiff and unnatural. Thick skin-tone powder caked the woman’s facedotted with two red spots of blush and lip paint. Though theweather was warm, a thick wool shawl was wrapped around the woman’sbroad shoulders and tied securely under her chin. She fidgeted,tucking a thick finger under it and pulling it away from her neck,as if it were uncomfortable. Pippa peered closer and smothered agasp when she spied a large Adams apple bob beneath the fabric. It cannot be...can it?
Scrunching closer to the door, she directedher gaze outside the coach. Could Percephany be a man dressed as awoman? If so why? Did he mean to rob the mail coach using adisguise? Heart thumping, she took in the scenery. They were in themiddle of nowhere, it seemed. Trees whizzed by as the horsescantered at a steady pace down the wagon wheel-rutted road. Was itonly a week before she heard a tale of a woman who was robbingcoaches outside of London? Was this man the woman in question? Didhe move farther from London to perpetrate his crimes?
The he-she in question cleared his throat.Pippa looked up. Percephany smiled and reached into the bag at hisfeet. Pippa steeled herself for the inevitable drawing of a gun andthe shouted command to “stand and deliver.” Instead the imposterpulled out a couple of apples and held one out.
“Would you like one?”
Pippa glanced at the bag and shook her head.“No, thank you.”
“Suit yourself.” Percephany rubbed the appleon one sleeve and bit into it.
Pippa focused on the strong square jaw makingshort work of the fruit. Definitely a man…. Should she callhim on his ridiculous disguise? Her gaze drifted back to thewindow. It would be a few more hours before they stopped at an innfor a late meal. Unease settled in her chest as she sat there,undecided as what to do.
The coach slowed, shaking her from her innercontemplation. They rolled up alongside a man and a woman standingbeside a gig mired deep in the mud. One hind wheel hung at a crazyangle, the spokes split in two. Relief made Pippa draw a deepbreath. Surely the man would not try anything with two otheroccupants in the coach. The couple stepped forward and spoke withthe coach driver. After a moment the man unhitched the littlepiebald horse and tied him behind. He then crossed to the door andopened it. He handed the delicate woman into the coach andclambered in after her.
Pippa relaxed as the woman settled in besideher on the seat with a friendly smile. The man took the empty spotbeside the man in disguise and tipped his hat in greeting when hisgaze met hers. “Good evening, miss.”
She responded politely, “Good evening to you,sir. You have broken down, I see.”
He pouted. “Yes, the livery rented us a sorrygig. I’ve half a mind to return the contraption and the nag anddemand my money back.” He shot a look at the he-she, his browsfurrowing as if he too wondered at the gender beside him. Thegender-confused man returned to stare out the window.
More comfortable with the addition of thecouple, Pippa settled back and chatted. Though the woman seemedreluctant to converse the man entered into discussion with readyenthusiasm. She looked over at the he-she and caught him staring atthe quiet woman. His gaze was guarded and calculating. Sheshivered. Did he mean them harm? Pippa redirected her attention tothe woman beside her, rather than dwell on unsettling thoughts.“Where are you headed?”
The woman gave her a tight smile.“London…eventually. My...husband and I are to stop in Bracenvilleto visit family first.”
Pippa returned the woman's smile with a warmone of her own. “I too am headed for Bracenville. My name isPhilippa Nickle, but everyone calls me Pippa.”
The woman glanced at her husband. “I am PennyNash and this is my husband Peter.”
Percephany cleared his throat again.
Pippa studied him for a moment. His gazeshifted back and forth between the three of them with a thoughtfulexpression. He looked almost confused, or perhaps the flicker ofemotion passing over his heavily rouged features was dismay; it washard to tell, given the circumstances.
“Peter and Penny Nash and Philippa Nickle?”The gender confused man groaned and mumbled under his breath, “Sameinitials...what now?”
“I beg your pardon?” Peter asked, raising aneyebrow.
“Nothing, nothing. I was just remarking onall three of you having the same initials,” Percephany answered,before returning his stare out the window.
With a shrug Pippa resolved to ignore thestrange he-she and pulled a small notebook from her reticule. Afterfishing out the thin charcoal stick she always carried, she settledback to work on her latest poem to pass the time. At one point sheglanced up to find Percephany watching her with an intense look.Unnerved, she returned to her poem, trying to ignore his oddbehavior.
A shout rang out from atop the coach. Then anexplosion of gunfire broke the calm. The conveyance lurched to ahalt. Pippa peered into the dusk outside her window. A lone man ona horse blocked the road. He held a rifle pointed at the coachman.“We are being robbed!”
She turned to the other occupants of thecoach and froze when she came face-to-face with the barrel of apistol. Looking past it she gaped at Peter Nash who opened thecoach door and backed out. The woman held open a bag and gesturedto the she-man with the gun in her hand. “Stand and deliver,ma’am.”
Percephany frowned before dropping a handfulof coins in the bag.
The quiet woman turned to Pippa. “You too,miss.”
With a trembling hand Pippa took the smallamount of coin from her reticule and followed suit.
The woman arched an eyebrow. “Is thatit?”
“Never mind their petty coin. Hold the gun onthem whilst Ned and I unload the payroll trunk,” the man in thedoorway hissed.
The woman shrugged. As she stepped pastPercephany, her partner headed around to the front of the coach.With a movement so quick Pippa could scarcely believe it occurred,the gender confused man tripped the woman. After getting her in ahead lock, he wrenched the pistol from her.
“Do not move,” he growled. When the womandropped the bag, he eased from the coach with her tight in hisgrip. “I say, cease and desist before I put a lead ball in yourpretty companion’s head here, mates.”
Pippa leaned out the coach window to take inthe scene. The coachman had been relieved of his weapons and nowstood at the side of the road with his hands in the air. A man ontop of the conveyance with a bandanna across the lower half of hisface struggled to lower a large trunk with a silver padlock toPeter Nash.
Peter swiveled around, his gun held in onehand pointed at the driver and the other on the handle of theprecariously dangling trunk. “What the devil!”
“I suggest you lay down your weapons, sirs.”Percephany remarked in a steady tone.
“Well, ain’t this a pig in a poke?” the manatop the coach sneered. “Whatcha’ gonna do, lady, shoot usboth?”
Percephany focused on him with a stern look.“I assure you, I am quite handy with a piece, sir.”
“Ma’am,” the coach driver piped up with anervous look. “Perhaps we should just let these men take the trunkand be on their way now….”
“Rubbish! Why, what kind of a lady would I beto turn away from a crime being committed? For shame,” shesimpered.
If the situation were not so serious, Pippawould have laughed out loud at the scene unfolding. The robberslooked back and forth at each other, clearly taken aback by a largelady defying them with a gun to the head of their accomplice.
The man atop the conveyance dropped the trunkto the ground with a thud. “Well, now Ma’am, I suppose I’ll jus’’ave to shoot you then.” He raised his pistol, but before he couldshoot, a shot rang out and the gun fell from his fingers. Howlinghe clutched his arm where Percephany’s bullet had caught him.
The woman in Percephany’s hold chose thatmoment to bite down on his arm and kick the he-she in theshins.
With a howl, Percephany let go of Penny Nash.The injured robber fled into the trees. Peter and Penny Nashscrambled aboard the abandoned horse and galloped off in theopposite direction.
Pippa watched them go with a mixture of alarmand relief. “Percephany, um…I mean, Mrs. Doyle, are you allright?”
The woman in question rubbed her shin with agrimace. “I am fine, dear.”
The coachman hurried forward. “Are you sureyou are not hurt, ma’am?”
“I am perfectly fine, thank you,” Percephanysnapped. “I say, we had best be moving before those devils regroupand return.”
“Yes, ma’am.” The coachman glanced at thetrunk on the ground. “It will be a job to get that back uptop.”
Percephany stalked to the trunk, hoisted itup with a mighty heave and a grunt, and then gasped, “Get abovequick and help me, before I burst my corset.”
Astonished, the coachman scrambled up top andhelped reload the heavy chest. After the trunk was back in place,Mrs. Doyle stuffed the pistol in the reticule dangling from histhick wrist and climbed back into the coach.
Pippa stifled a giggle with her hand. Thehe-she raised an eyebrow and settled back against the cushions asthe coachman whipped the horses forward. “Who says a lady ishelpless now, eh dear?”
Pippa snickered. “You, Percephany, or Mrs.Doyle if you prefer, are no lady.”
Percephany fixed her with a steely gaze.“Well, let us just keep that little notion between us shallwe?”
“I am quite sure no one in their right mindwould believe me anyway, sir,” Pippa snickered.
“Quite right, miss.” He turned to gaze outthe window.
Pippa studied him in silence. Just what wasthe strange man up to anyway?
 
 
Chapter Three
 
It was dark by the time they made their nextstop and picked up a young woman with a small boy, and an oldergentleman. Pippa was glad for the company, rather than sitting instrained silence with the strange he-she. Word spread at each ofthe stops of the heroism of one Mrs. Percephany Doyle.
Though the strange, cross-dressing fellow wasa short term distraction, Pippa soon found herself wallowing in herformer misery. She had only a few short weeks to come up with a wayout of her predicament. Mitchel had played an awful game with herheart, but he couldn’t shoulder all the blame. She had been naiveand irresponsible, to say the least. Gone was the sweet, flatteringyoung squire she had fallen head over heels for. The handsome boyshe couldn’t believe was smitten with her wasn’t at all. All thosetimes they had spent at the pond, reading poetry, lying in theshade talking of their future, and the secret kisses which made herheart flutter, had all been a lie.
Her cheeks flamed at the remembrance of theirone and only fateful bedding, and she was glad of the dimness fromthe single lantern in the coach that hid it. The deed had been donein short order and with mild discomfort in the hay of his father’sloft, much to her disappointment. The tingling of her body, andthumping of her heart, had been all the wonder she had gotten whenhis rough entry made her cry out in pain. Within moments he wasdone and buckling up his breeches, while she lay there strangelyunfulfilled. Never had she imagined coupling being so cold andempty. Like all girls, she supposed she attached a fairytalequality to mere rutting. It made one wonder why women consented tohaving their bodies used in such a fashion, beyond conception ofthe required heir, that is.
Shaking the memory from her mind, sheconcentrated on the more pressing issue. How was she to hide herpregnancy from her parents? There seemed no way she couldaccomplish the feat, not for the last month or two for sure. Whenthey found out they would cast her from their door, send her to anunnery, or, Lord knew, something else much more sinister. If shetold who the father was it would only be worse for her family, andif she refused to name the father, her family would still beshunned. There seemed no other way out but to run away; just whereand how she had no idea. Maybe she could find employmentsomewhere.
A loud snore disturbed her thoughts. Sheglanced up at Percephany. His chin drooped to his chest, eyesclosed, and great rumbling snores filled the coach. Her giggle wasmet with an amused look from the older man, and a stern one fromthe lady with the sleeping boy sprawled across her lap.
“Disgraceful,” the woman murmured.
The older man snickered, cleared his throatand then gave Percephany a discreet nudge.
With a snort Percephany’s eyes flew open. Heglanced around the coach and then sat up straighter with a grunt.After fidgeting with the scarf around his neck, he settled back tostare out the window at the blackness beyond.
Before long the lights of an inn appeared,and the driver slowed the horses to draw up before the doors. Hehelped each passenger disembark. As he took Pippa’s hand, hepressed two shillings into it. “If I may, I would like to returnthe money those thieves tried to abscond with, miss.”
“Thank you, sir, it is the only coin I haveto see me to Bracenville.”
He tipped his head. “Your meal is on me,miss, for your trouble, but due to the incident I have decided tohold up the night at the inn. We will return on our journey atfirst light.”
Pippa frowned and stepped to the side toallow Percephany to alight behind her. “But I had not counted onthe expense of a room, sir.”
Percephany patted her shoulder. “Never mind,dear, I shall be happy to pay for your room, ’tis the least I cando for the good company you have provided an old widow.”
Pippa was hard pressed to nod acceptance,rather than burst out laughing at the idea of the he-she being awidow, not to mention their lack of conversation being goodcompany. However, the idea of sleeping in the stable did notinterest her in the least; so she had little choice, but to acceptthe offer of a room. “Thank you, Si— Ma’am, ’tis most kind ofyou.”
“Please,” Percephany squeaked, “No need tothank me, dear. Come along, a nice supper is what we need.”
Left without another option, Pippa allowedhim to escort her to the crowded inn’s dining room. All class ofpeople occupied the tables for a late night meal. A well-dressedlord and lady sat at a small table in the corner, a farmer, hiswife, and a brood of six children ranging in age from toddler tolate teens crowded around the large center one, and a group ofmiddle class merchant men the other. That left the older gentleman,the woman with the young boy, Percephany, and Pippa together at theremaining table. Within moments a tavern wench brought steamingbowls of mutton stew, coarse bread, and tankards of spiced ale.
They ate in silence for a few moments untilthe older gentleman cleared his throat and looked to Percephany. “Isay, this stew is rather good, don’t you think?”
“Quite,” Percephany squeaked and then paidclose attention to the bowl before her.
Pippa bit her lip to keep from grinning asthe “lady” stuffed spoonful after spoonful in his mouth in anobvious attempt to avoid any further conversation. “I am so tired Ido not think I can possibly finish mine.”
The gentleman nodded. “I am sure you are.Travelling by public coach can be very draining on a young lady. Ihear we got the last three rooms, luckily.”
“Three?” Pippa froze with the spoon halfwayto her mouth.
“Oh yes, well if you can call them rooms.”The gentleman grimaced. “I suspect mine is a mere closet since theyhad to accommodate me in one separate from you ladies. I believeyou are to share with Mrs. Doyle, and Mrs. Stanton and her son willoccupy the last.”
“But, that is impossible, Mrs. Doyle is—”
“A dreadfully loud snorer, I know,”Percephany interrupted in a high pitched tone. “I am so sorry, mydear, but we cannot have me keeping a young one awake all night.Could you imagine the rest of our journey tomorrow with a fussychild aboard? Oh dear no. I am afraid you are quite stuck withme.”
Pippa stared wide eyed in horror. “But—”
Percephany kicked Pippa under the table. “Iassure you, Miss Nickle, I will do my best not to keep you awakethis night. After all, we wouldn’t want to put another poortraveler out, now would we? And I promise no harm shall come toyour virtue whilst I am your faithful chaperone. Yes, you shall beperfectly safe under my watch.” He leaned closer and lowered hisvoice. “Why, I have heard horrid things happening in these inns youknow…rape and murder, just to mention a few. Besides, you have seenhow competent I am with a pistol. Why, I dare those thieves to comeback again.” He tittered while shooting her a meaningful look.
“Oh yes, you are in very capable hands, MissNickel. Why, I would even trust myself to Mrs. Doyle’s protectionafter the tale of her encounter with those rough coach robbers.They would have to be brazen louts to take on a woman of her….” Hepondered the bulk of the canary yellow, velvet clad figure.“Skill,” he finished.
Though the gentleman’s obvious appreciationof Percephany’s ample figure was amusing, Pippa found herself in anawkward position. It was clear the he-she did not want anyone toknow he was a man in disguise. The question was why, and should shekeep his secret? Not to mention would she be safe from all harm inhis company? She toyed with her stew. It was not as if she had anyvirtue left to be concerned with, and if everyone believedPercephany was a woman then it wouldn’t even be an issue. Perhapsshe could claim later the cross-dressing man had stolen hervirginity by force and it was his child she carried? Though she didnot want to lie, it was a plausible story that might help hersituation. After all, surely the strange man would not be easilyfound and held accountable for his supposed misdeed.
“I suppose we should retire for the night,”Percephany mumbled. “After all, morning will come early for thoseof us ladies who are unused to such a wicked hour of rising.”
Pippa dropped her spoon and rose with greatreluctance. “Good eve, everyone, pleasant dreams.” In silence shefollowed her roommate upstairs to the last room on the left.
Percephany opened the door to reveal a smallspace crammed with two narrow cots made up with a couple of thinwool blankets and a narrow table between them, on which perched apitcher of water, a wash basin and a single lit candle. “This ishighly indecent, sir.”
The he-she yanked her inside and closed thedoor. “Relax, I have no intention of accosting you in your sleep,”he grumbled, in a distinctly male voice.
“You are a man!”
He tugged the bonnet and wig from his head.“Luckily for you, you know how to keep your tongue still. I thoughtfor sure you were going to reveal my identity down there.”
“Your identity?”
With a snicker he sat down on the bed andbegan unlacing the comically large women’s boots on his feet.“Surely you did not think I would dress in this ridiculous outfitfor a lark, did you?”
Pippa crossed her arms. “Well, it hadoccurred to me that perhaps you were a little touched in the brain,sir.”
His snort echoed in the little room above thethump of the boots hitting the floor. “After wearing this abhorrentcorset for the last full day, I am prone to think women are theones touched in the head, miss.”
She couldn’t help but giggle. “I must agreewith you there, sir. A corset is the bane of many a woman’sexistence, for sure.”
He looked up with a grin and a twinkle in hiseye. “Do not just stand there for God’s sake. Help me out of thistorture.”
“Oh, dear.” Pippa stepped back and eyed thedoor. “I do not believe that would be appropriate, sir.”
“Why?” He eyed her with a skeptical look.
“Well…I mean, ’tis not right for an unwedlady—”
“Do not get your petticoats in a bunch, Ihave leggings and a shirt on underneath, so your delicatesensibilities shall not be torn asunder by my male physique.” Hepulled on the neck of the high throated gown.
“In that case…turn around so I may get at thebuttons on the back.”
He turned. “My name is Heath.”
“Oh.” Pippa fumbled with the buttons. “So,just what are you doing dressed up as a woman, anyway?”
“I am on a covert mission.”
Pippa finished with the buttons and steppedback. “To sample women’s fashion?”
Heath snickered and peeled the top of thedress down. “No, to catch the leader of a spy ring, a person withthe initials P.N.”
“Well, my initials are P.N.”
“It is not you.” He scrubbed his face paintoff with the cold water in the basin.
“Really?” Despite the absurdity of thesituation, she found herself a little perturbed to be so easilydiscounted. “How come? Too provincial to be smart enough?”
He chuckled, patted his face dry with thetowel provided and stepped out of the skirt to reveal he did infact have a shirt and tights on beneath. “No, you are much toochatty to be a spy.”
“Oh.” With a sniff she sat on the oppositecot. When he looked up at her with a grin, she was taken aback byhis handsomeness. The silly blonde wig hid a head of wavy, sandybrown hair streaked with gold highlights. Smooth bronze skin wasrevealed where once thick skin-toned powder concealed it. His deepblue eyes danced with amusement and good humor. “Now that you havechanged back into a man, you may leave and find a stack of hay tosleep in in the stables.”
He frowned and thick brows drooped. “I cannotpossibly be seen entering the room as a woman and leaving as a man,it would botch my mission.”
“Then do not be seen, sir.” Pippa scowled athim and pushed an unruly chestnut lock behind her ear.
“Like it or not, we are stuck together forthe night. We must just make the best of it.”
“If you think for one moment I am going toshare my room with the likes of you—”
“Shh!” He clapped a hand over her mouth andlooked to the door. Footsteps approached, paused before the door,and then continued past. After a few moments, when no one returned,Heath lifted his hand. “If the spy suspects I am in disguise hemight try to break in here tonight and kill me. You could be indanger, so I must stay. Besides, your initials fit the informant weare both looking for.”
“Then I refuse to stay and allow you to putme in harm’s way. I shall go downstairs and demand another room.”Pippa leapt to her feet.
“There are not any other rooms, remember?Now, unless you would like to cause a scandal by slumbering in thestables yourself, I suggest you get some sleep.” With that he sethis pistol on the table within easy reach and stretched out on thebed.
“Unbelievable,” Pippa spat. “You are justgoing to go to sleep now?”
He closed his eyes. “Did you have some otherform of entertainment to offer, miss?”
Snatching up the blanket she wrapped itaround herself. “Absolutely not!”
“I thought not,” he mumbled. “Goodnight.”
“Ooh!” Left with little other choice, Pipparemoved her bonnet and shoes, and then lay down on the lumpy cot.“So help me God, if you try anything I shall scream the inndown.”
“Warning acknowledged.” He grunted and blewout the candle.
What seemed like hours ticked by and Pippagrew stiff from lying so still on the awful cot. She shifted. Hercot squeaked, but the man’s snores never ceased. Apparently he wasnot at all bothered with her presence, despite her being terriblyuncomfortable with his. Heaving a sigh she rolled onto her back.There seemed nothing to do but make the best of the situation. Itappeared the man did not pose a threat to her. She wished, however,she could be as comfortable sleeping with a stranger in the room ashe. She wondered at the time for a moment. Surely dawn was comingsoon. Her gaze was drawn to the outer wall. Without a window it wasimpossible to tell the hour. With a yawn she closed her eyes. Itwas going to be a long night.
 
 
Chapter Four
 
Someone rapped on the door. “The coach leavesin a half of an hour.”
Pippa rolled over. Had she not just closedher eyes? Her gaze settled on the man across from her as he swunghis legs over the side of the cot with a bleary eyed stare andtousled hair. “Oh, Lord,” she squealed, jerking the blanket uparound her neck.
He raised an eyebrow, ran a hand through hishair and grimaced. “Good morrow, to you too.”
Shooting him a dirty look she sat up and bentto retrieve her shoes. Her stomach rolled and sweat broke out onher forehead. In dismay she bolted for the chamber pot in thecorner by the door and retched.
The cot squeaked, water sloshed, and thenfootsteps padded toward her. A damp handkerchief appeared in herline of vision. “Here.”
“Thank you.” Pippa wiped her face andmouth.
“For someone with child, you are curiouslyshy about the opposite sex.”
She eased to her feet and turned around.“What makes you think I am with child?”
Heath smiled and sat to pull on his ladies’kid leather boots. “My sister had bouts of morning sickness withall three of her pregnancies.”
Dismissing his claim with a wave of her hand,she sat on her recently vacated cot. “You are mistaken, I am notwith child. The mutton last eve must have been rancid.”
“Mine was fine.”
With a shrug she slipped on her shoes.
“Since you refer to yourself as Miss Nickle,I assume you are unwed?”
“Mama sent me to help with my cousin’swedding preparations in hopes I will find myself a suitablebeau.”
It was silent for a moment as she affixed herbonnet and he his wig. “Just how do you propose to find a husbandwhen you are already breeding?”
“I—” Pippa tied her bonnet and got to herfeet. “It is none of your business, sir. If you will excuse me, Iwould like to break my fast now.”
“Wait.” When she peered over her shoulder athim with a wary look, he smiled. “Would you mind helping me dressand apply my face paint?”
“Fine.” Rolling her eyes, she crossed to helphim don his costume. “You know, not many men would be able to pulloff such a look, sir. Luckily you have rather soft, femininefeatures. But you could really use the help of a corset.”
His face contorted in mock anguish. “Thanks,I think. Good thing my fiancée is drawn to pretty boys then.”
Her fingers stilled on the buttons down theback of his traveling dress. “You are engaged?”
“Yes, a lovely, titled young lady accepted mysuit.”
Pippa sniffed. “And, pray tell, what does shethink about her intended touring the countryside dressed as awoman?”
He stiffened. “Lady Spencer does not know,and I am not about to tell her.

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