The handsome but arrogant Viscount Charles Hawksborough desperately wanted to catch the infernally insolent thief who had held him up at pistol point on the King’s Highway and ridden off with his family’s inheritance and jewels.
Hawksborough just as desperately tried not to want the piquant and penniless Miss Amanda Colby when the young lady and her twin brother came to stay at his London townhouse at the height of the social season.
The viscount feared his own desire for this slip of a girl when he was about to wed the most beautiful and more suitable Lady Mary Dane. Meanwhile, Amanda feared he would discover she was the thief before she could atone for the crime. Whatever was to happen, it was clear that neither were prepared for what was to take place in this bewildering labyrinth of love and larceny.
“Chesney is a romance writer who deftly blends humor and adventure . . . [Sustaining] her devoted audience to the last gasp.” —Booklist
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"It is not as if we really have anything to worry about," said Amanda Colby, examining a purple-stained finger which she had just pricked on a bramble bush.
"Not us," replied her twin, Richard, cheerfully. "I think we have gathered enough berries to supply jam for years, Amanda. Aunt Matilda should be back from the reading of the will by now."
Amanda plucked a few more berries and then straightened her slim back and looked out over the fields of Hardforshire, rolling brown autumn fields bordered with scarlet and gold trees. The sky was deepening to violet on the horizon and there was already a nip of early frost in the air. The difficulty about gathering berries, she thought, was that brambles grew in hedgerows, and hedgerows had muddy ditches thick with nettles at the foot of them. Her stockings felt damp inside her sodden half-boots and her faded blue velvet cloak seemed inadequate protection against the early-evening chill.
The sun had set. It was a peaceful and quiet October evening.
Smoke climbed straight up into the tranquil air from cottage chimneys and hips and haws in the thick thorn hedges glowed with a brighter color in the gathering dusk.
"Then let us go," said Amanda, picking up her pail of berries. "I must confess, Richard, I am a trifle concerned over the outcome of Uncle's will. Mr. Brotherington is his heir, you know, and he does not like us one bit, nor does that new wife of his. If Uncle Arthur has left us to his tender mercies, we may find ourselves destitute."
"Fustian," said Richard, falling into step beside her on the country road. "He has paid Aunt Matilda the allowance for our keep since Mother and Father died. He will simply have stated in his will that the allowance is to continue. Things will go on as they always have done, you'll see."
"I hope so," said Amanda with a shiver. "It is cold. Let's hurry."
They walked rapidly together, each carrying a pail brimming with berries.
"However," said Amanda, suddenly slowing as the tall chimneys of their home, Fox End, came into view, "I cannot help, you know, Richard, sometimes feeling that perhaps it is a trifle hard if things are to go on as they have always done. The allowance provides us with food and shelter but little else. I am weary of maintaining the position of a lady and struggling day in and day out with the rigours of genteel poverty. It was fun when we were children, but now ... Oh, it does seem hard when there is a hunt ball or an assembly and all we can do is stand and wave to the carriages going past because we have not the clothes to attend or a carriage to take us there."
"Pooh," said Richard. "These things do not matter to me, although sometimes I do feel left out. But I do not wish to pay empty compliments to some silly girl. I have my horse and my gun, and we are good friends as well as being twins, Amanda."
"Oh, yes ... but ..." Amanda left the sentence unfinished. How could she explain to her boisterous sports-loving brother about the novels she read which filled her head with dreams?
"At least Amanda is much too young to be thinking of marriage," Aunt Matilda would say.
Amanda had thought of love and marriage for quite some months now. But that road for any gently bred girl led only through the neighbourhood balls and assemblies.
They rounded a bend in the road and Richard pushed open the rusty iron gates which led into the short drive of Fox End.
Fox End was a small country house built in the days of Queen Anne. It was badly in need of repairs, although its bow-fronted windows, cheerful red brick walls, and tiled roof with its jumble of massive chimney stacks presented a comfortable, welcoming appearance.
The central doorway opened into the hall from which rose the main staircase, and, behind the staircase, another door led from the far end into the garden. There was a drawing room, a dining room, a morning room, and a study on the ground floor, and, in addition, there were kitchens front and back, pantries and china cupboards and a place for coal.
Upstairs there were five bedrooms and two small dressing rooms. The servants' rooms were in the attics, but it had been quite a while since servants had lived at Fox End.
A woman came weekly from the nearby town of Hember Cross to do rough cleaning, and a man from the village came every few days to tend the three acres of garden and to do any other outside work and repairs. But either Aunt Matilda or Amanda did the cooking, and Amanda did all the sewing and washing.
There was a carriage house at the back, and stables where in palmier days had stood a carriage and a gig and four horses. But now there were only Richard's rawboned hunter and Amanda's donkey, Bluebell.
The Colby twins' parents had both died when they were still babies. Mr. and Mrs. Colby had both become infected with cholera during a visit to London, a severe bout from which neither had recovered. They had been a spendthrift couple who had considered themselves immortal, and so they had left no money.
After their deaths, Amanda and Richard were brought up by the late Mrs. Colby's spinster sister, Matilda Pettifor. "Uncle Arthur" was, in fact, no relative. He was simply Arthur Cogswell, who had been a close friend of the late Mr. Colby. Since the Colby twins seemed to have no relatives who were prepared to aid them — other than Miss Pettifor, who had no money at all — Mr. Cogswell had offered them a small monthly allowance, had agreed to pay for Richard's schooling, and had given them the use of Fox End. Mr. Brotherington, his nephew, was his heir.
The cold stillness of the autumn evening hung in the shadowy corners of the house.
"Perhaps Aunt Matilda is not home yet," said Amanda, leading the way to the kitchen with her pail of berries. "The house is very cold. At least we do not need to economise on wood."
She swung off her cloak and threw it over the back of a chair while Richard lit the kitchen fire. Amanda filled a heavy kettle and swung it on the idleback so that the bottom hung over the crackling flames.
"Now, Richard," she said, "we will light a fire in the morning room and have tea when Aunt Matilda gets back."
"I'm hungry," said Richard. "All that fresh air and exercise!"
"Well, come into the morning room with me and help me with the fire and then I shall fetch a cold collation for us both. I confess to feeling sharp set myself."
She lit a candle and led the way back through the hall, her diminutive shadow flying before Richard's larger one.
"First," said Amanda, opening the door of the morning room and observing the gathering darkness, "we need to have more light in here."
She lit a branch of candles on the mantelshelf with the one she was holding, and, hearing an exclamation of dismay from her brother, swung around.
Aunt Matilda was scrunched up into a pathetic ball in one of the two winged armchairs which flanked the fireplace. A damp handkerchief was held to her mouth and tears coursed silently down her cheeks.
Amanda knelt quickly down beside her while Richard cleared his throat in an embarrassed way and occupied himself with lighting the fire.
"The will," said Amanda. "It was the will, was it not? He has left us nothing."
Aunt Matilda gave a weary little sigh like that of a very tired child who has cried itself out, and said in a whisper, "He has left us the house."
"Ah, then," cried Amanda, sitting back on her heels. "I have it. Your nerves have merely been overset by the relief from the strain."
Aunt Matilda shook her head slowly while her enormous starched linen and lace cap bobbed from side to side. "The house, yes," she gasped. "But no money."
Richard swore an ungentlemanly oath and dropped a log on the fire.
Amanda put her thin red hands to her cheeks. "Are you sure?" she asked. "Are you so very sure, dear Aunt? Of what use is the house to us if we have no money to eat?" Her face cleared. "Oh, you misunderstood. Mr. Brotherington, Uncle's heir, has been given instructions to continue the allowance."
Again the great white cap dipped and bobbed. "It was all very clear," said Aunt Matilda faintly. "It was implied in the will that Mr. Brotherington should attend to our needs, but you know how he is. He affected not to hear. The lawyer, Mr. Macdonald, did venture to ask him if he would be continuing the allowance, and he simply turned away and affected to be deaf."
"Then how are we supposed to go on?"
"Sell the house," said Aunt Matilda weakly.
"Sell Fox End!" cried Richard. "And then what? The money from the sale cannot last the three of us forever. At least here we have some shooting and fishing and vegetables from the garden."
"There is to be no more shooting or fishing," wailed Aunt Matilda. "Mr. Brotherington was oh! so harsh. He had already hired a score of gamekeepers and he said in a very loud voice that anyone caught poaching on his land would be hanged at best and transported at least, no matter who they were."
Amanda stood up. "We shall go and see him immediately."
"No," said Richard heavily. "I feared this would happen. He detests us. It was last year when he invited us all at Uncle's request to one of his soirées. He had invited Sir James Framington in the hope that Sir James would form a tendre for that wretched daughter of his, Priscilla. Only Sir James became a trifle foxed and paid court to you, Amanda. We know he was not at all serious, for you were but seventeen with your hair down, and although you are very well in your way, you are not precisely ... well, you know."
"Yes," said Amanda sadly, "I know. If I were better favored, there would be hope that I could trap a rich suitor, but as it is ..."
"What are we to do?" sobbed Aunt Matilda, her long pink nose twitching in distress.
"Well, we have just received the allowance, so we are all right for another month ... perhaps two, if we scrimp and save," said Amanda, thinking furiously. "Richard, go and fetch that last bottle of brandy, and take off the kettle. I think this calls for a celebration."
"What kind of celebration do you call this?" said Richard gloomily, moving towards the door.
"Well, I am not blessed with beauty, but you have always said I am too clever by half. This is the first test. A little brandy to animate my brain, and you will see ... we will come about."
"I want to go to sleep," said Aunt Matilda, holding her handkerchief over her face. "I don't want to eat, I don't want to drink brandy, I want to go to sleep now."
Amanda sighed. Aunt Matilda fled even the small pinpricks of reality in sleep. She could sleep sixteen hours at a stretch without the aid of laudanum. Tonight was not the time to beg her to stay awake.
"Very well," she said gently. "Come, and I will help you upstairs. Richard," she said to her brother, who had just entered the room with the brandy, "fetch a hot brick from the kitchen to put at Aunt Matilda's feet. I will light the fire in her room."
Aunt Matilda fell asleep almost immediately once she had been put into a clean nightdress and tucked into bed.
Her face under the nightcap looked pinched and old. How old was Aunt Matilda? wondered Amanda. Fifty? Or had her timid life of genteel poverty made her look older than her years?
She picked up the candle and made her way downstairs again.
Amanda and Richard sat on either side of the fire and drank brandy and looked at each other gloomily.
They did not look alike, although they were twins.
Amanda Colby was small and wiry with a small bosom and a tiny waist. Her hair sprang out from her brow in a frizzy auburn cloud. Sometimes she tamed it into ringlets with the curling tongs, but it would soon start to spring out from its neat prison into a mass of frizz again. She had very large hazel eyes, gold flecked with green, and thick, curling sandy lashes tipped with gold. Her nose was short and straight and her mouth soft and vulnerable. But her thin face and quick intelligent expression gave her rather a foxy look and she turned her head sharply at each sound, putting it a little on one side like a wild animal wary of hunters.
With a different upbringing, with a schooling in how to flirt and how to charm to a nicety, she might perhaps have achieved a modicum of fashionable beauty, but she had led a boyish life, hunting and fishing with her brother, and so she had acquired only a very few social graces.
Richard, on the other hand, was large and broadshouldered. He had thick brown hair and hazel eyes set in a pleasant tanned face. His expression was usually open and cheerful.
The brandy coiled its way down the depths of Amanda's empty stomach. The fire crackled cheerfully on the hearth. Amanda hitched a fire screen in front of her and slid the embroidered oval down the pole to shield her face from the blaze.
"You remember how we used to read the tales of Robin Hood?" she asked dreamily, leaning her head against one wing of the chair and resting the brandy glass on her small stomach.
"Yes," said Richard. "Capital they were. Taking to a life of crime, Amanda?"
"It's worth thinking about," said Amanda, still in the same dreamy voice. "The landlord at the Feathers at Hember Cross told me one day that highwaymen do not just hold up a coach at random. They ferret out news about who is likely to be travelling and when. Some of the ostlers are in their pay."
"Not the ostlers at the Feathers," said Richard, leaning forward to pour himself another glass. He held out the bottle to Amanda, who lazily raised her glass to show that she still had some.
"There is this assembly on Friday at the Feathers. We are invited, of course. If we pawned something, Richard, and bought some finery, we could go."
"Now, why should we go?" Richard grinned. "Do you hope to catch a rich beau? As I pointed out earlier, it's not as if you were —"
"Yes, yes, yes," said Amanda crossly. "I was thinking we might take to the High Toby."
Richard sat up so abruptly that some of his brandy spilled on his breeches.
"Become highwaymen!" he gasped.
"Why not?" asked Amanda, being made calm and falsely reasonable by brandy on an empty stomach. "The thief-takers are only expert in finding people of the criminal class. No one will think of us. The Earl of Hardforshire's house party is to attend the assembly, and there are a great deal of swells among them. All we have to do is find out discreetly when they plan to take the road."
Richard shook his head as if to clear it. "But to take the first part of the plan," he said. "What on earth have we got left that we could possibly take to the two-to-one shop?"
"The gold locket Mother left me."
"I thought you swore never to part with that."
"No, I did think that, but you see, I would rather eat than not, and one cannot eat a gold locket. Furthermore, the vicar says it is sinful to put too much store by worldly possessions, and a gold locket is a very worldly possession. Also, we shall be like Robin Hood. We are robbing the rich to give to the poor."
"It's mad," sighed Richard, "but nonetheless...."
He smiled across at his sister, who smiled back, and despite the dissimilarity of their features, in that brief second they looked amazingly alike.
"Nonetheless," went on Richard slowly, "we do not need to actually do it. We could pawn the locket and get the clothes and go to the assembly and just ... well ... see."
"My idea exactly," said Amanda, putting her feet up on the fender. But in her mind's eye, she and Richard were already out on the King's Highway calling on some bloated lord with more money than was good for his soul to part with some of it.
The next day brought rain, fine drizzling rain, which turned to ice as soon as it hit the ground.
The glorious plans of the night before seemed like a childish fantasy, and without referring to it, Richard and Amanda had each privately decided the whole thing was madness induced by stress and brandy.
But their "uncle's" heir, Mr. Brotherington, chose to pay them a visit. Aunt Matilda was mercifully still asleep.
He was a thick, brutish-looking man with a harsh red face and small black eyes. An expensive morning coat was stretched across his shoulders and his cravat was tied in a travesty of the Oriental, which meant his starched shirt points were cutting into his jowls. He wore an old-fashioned wig and smelled of sweat, imperfectly disguised by musk. His lower limbs dropped from the heights of fashion, being encased in moleskin breeches and square-toed boots caked with mud.
It transpired he had had a lecture from the lawyer, a lecture from the vicar, and a lecture from the local squire over his lack of concern for the destitute Colbys.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Viscount's Revenge"
Copyright © 1983 Marion Chesney.
Excerpted by permission of RosettaBooks.
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