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Authors: Elizabeth Beacon

Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #Regency

A Most Unladylike Adventure

BOOK: A Most Unladylike Adventure
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‘Men!’ she condemned impatiently. ‘You’re all the same.’

‘Now, there you’re almost certainly mistaken,’ he lazily informed her, making no attempt to disguise his wolfishly thorough appraisal of her well-displayed charms. ‘We’re all different, but we
think
alike when presented with nigh irresistible temptation such as you pose any red-blooded male by going about dressed like
that
. At the moment I’m too busy fantasising about the feel of your magnificent body writhing under me as you desperately beg me to take you to paradise to waste much of my energy on rational thought, my darling.’

‘I’m not your darling, and I’m prepared to bet you don’t know the first thing about what would truly transport a woman to paradise,’ Louisa snapped back.

‘Aren’t you willing to add me to your stable of lucrative lovers, then, my darling doxy?’ he suddenly asked, as if he had every right to insult her.

‘Firstly, I’m very particular whom I allow to even call me darling, Captain Darke, and secondly, even if I wasn’t, I certainly wouldn’t take a man like you to my bed!’

AUTHOR NOTE

Welcome to A MOST UNLADYLIKE ADVENTURE. While you might recognise one or two of the characters here from my other books, this one is a self-contained adventure and I’ve had a ball while telling Louisa Alstone’s story. Louisa is passionate, unconventional and loyal, and survived a childhood that would drive most well-bred females of her time to despair. Then there’s her flawed, embittered and utterly irresistible hero…

As soon as dark and brooding Captain Hugh stepped onto the page in a previous book, REBELLIOUS RAKE, INNOCENT GOVERNESS, I knew there had to be an intriguing adventure behind his wooing and winning of the Earl of Carnwood’s little sister, and, now I’ve been lucky enough to have the chance to tell it. I hope you enjoy reading A MOST UNLADYLIKE ADVENTURE as much as I have loved writing it.

Somehow I had to revisit the Alstones one last time to tell Louisa and her piratical Captain’s story, and the action of this novel takes place several years before my other Alstone books—A LESS THAN PERFECT LADY, REBELLIOUS RAKE, INNOCENT GOVERNESS and ONE LAST SEASON—begin. This book should have been at the start of it all, but I’m a less than perfect author who got beguiled along the way, so I really hope you enjoy Hugh and Louisa’s love story and forgive me for leaving them until last!

About the Author

ELIZABETH BEACON
lives in the beautiful English West Country, and is finally putting her insatiable curiosity about the past to good use. Over the years Elizabeth has worked in her family’s horticultural business, became a mature student, qualified as an English teacher, worked as a secretary and briefly tried to be a civil servant. She is now happily ensconced behind her computer, when not trying to exhaust her bouncy rescue dog with as many walks as the inexhaustible Lurcher can finagle. Elizabeth can’t bring herself to call researching the wonderfully diverse, scandalous Regency period and creating charismatic heroes and feisty heroines
work
, and she is waiting for someone to find out how much fun she is having and tell her to stop it.

Previous novels by the same author:

AN INNOCENT COURTESAN
HOUSEMAID HEIRESS
A LESS THAN PERFECT LADY
THE RAKE OF HOLLOWHURST CASTLE
REBELLIOUS RAKE, INNOCENT GOVERNESS
CAPTAIN LANGTHORNE’S PROPOSAL

A Most
Unladylike
Adventure

Elizabeth Beacon

I would like to dedicate this book to Margaret J, Amanda G, Katie, Melanie and most of all to Nicola—all selfless and dedicated supporters of the Romantic Novelists’ Association, UK, and particularly of the wonderful New Writers’ Scheme, which has given so many of us the self-discipline and hope to keep on trying. Without you I would definitely not be doing this now—so thank you for everything!

Chapter One

W
ondering if she could still climb like a cat, Louisa Alstone swung her feet out of the window and eased into the spring night; considering the thought of marrying Charlton Hawberry was unendurable, she supposed she’d find out soon enough. His purloined breeches shifted about her lithely feminine legs as she flexed muscles she hadn’t used properly in six years and did her best not to look down. She’d certainly changed since the last time she had chased through the London streets, or scampered across rooftops above them, but she fervently hoped she hadn’t forgotten all her street-urchin skills.

She should be far too much of a lady to consider such a desperate escape now, but silently
prayed her agility hadn’t deserted her as she tried not to shake like a leaf in a high wind. Her brother, Christopher, or Kit Stone as he went by in business, was off with his best friend and business partner Ben Shaw, too busy having adventures on the high seas, so there was really no point waiting around for them to rescue her. Since she’d rather die than wed a man who would happily force her up the aisle after she had refused to marry him, she let go of the window mouldings and edged out along the parapet.

This would work; she refused to think of the swift death awaiting her if she fumbled. She boosted herself across the next window and blessed the builder of these narrow town houses for insisting every shutter fitted so neatly no hint of her passing outside would shadow the closely barred wood. She still breathed a little more easily when no one stirred within and felt for her next shallow grip on Charlton Hawberry’s house.

If she managed this, then where was there to go next? No point asking Uncle William and Aunt Prudence for help when they were calluding with Charlton. Uncle William would sell his soul to the devil for a good enough price and Kit’s growing wealth hadn’t endeared
him or his sisters to their uncle, especially since her brother made sure their uncle got as little of it as possible, which left only her sister and brother-in-law to turn to. Maria and Brandon Heathcote would be deeply shocked at Charlton’s appalling behaviour and give her sanctuary, but how could she bring scandal down on their comfortable Kentish rectory when neither of them deserved such notoriety? Then there was Maria’s ridiculous soft-heartedness to contend with and Louisa grimaced at the thought of her sister feeling sorry for lying, cheating, facilely good-looking Charlton Hawberry.

You must learn to be less extreme in your opinions, my dearest
, Maria had written in reply to Louisa’s last letter, in which she announced she’d rather die than marry the wretched man after his third proposal in as many weeks.
And why not consider Mr Hawberry’s proposals a little more seriously?
she had continued.
For all you persist in believing you will never marry, he sounds well enough looking and genuinely devoted to you. Being wed is so much better than dwindling into spinsterhood, my love, and I really think you should try to find yourself an agreeable husband
,
rather than regretting becoming an old maid when it is too late to remedy
.

Louisa no more believed in that love of Charlton’s than she did in her own ridiculous persona of lovely, impossibly fussy Miss Alstone, Ice Diamond of the
ton
, rumoured to have rejected more suitors than most débutantes imagined in their wildest dreams. Louisa knew her resistance to marriage would make her a curiosity to the bored gentlemen of the
ton
, so she’d made herself treat them coldly from the outset. Now her carefully cultivated aloofness was in ruins and, if she escaped Charlton, she’d be besieged by suitors and would-be seducers. In truth, neither Maria nor amiable, optimistic Brandon had it in them to stand up to Charlton for long and Uncle William and Aunt Prudence wouldn’t even try, so her reputation was already gone—a lost cause she couldn’t bring herself to mourn deeply. Perhaps it would persuade Kit to let her keep his house and help in his business, she decided, an old hope lightening her heart as she edged along the ledge, teeth gritted against the compulsion to look down into three-storeys’ worth of shadowy space.

‘I’d sooner starve,’ she’d told Uncle William truthfully when Charlton brought him into the
unappealingly luxurious bedchamber she was imprisoned in to show how compromised she was only an hour ago.

‘As you please. I won’t have a notorious woman under my roof, so you can go back to the streets we took you from as far as your aunt and I are concerned,’ Uncle William had replied with a Judas shrug and added, ‘If you don’t want to wed Hawberry, you shouldn’t have run off with him in the first place.’

‘He abducted me from that wretched masked ball Aunt Prudence insisted on attending and you know very well I hate the man. Won’t you send me to Chelsea to await my brother’s return, even if you won’t help me in any other way?’

‘I’m done with you, madam. I wish I’d never taken you into my home when your return for my foolishness was to ruin your cousin’s chance of making a good match by stealing all her suitors.’

‘I couldn’t do that if I tried. I’ve no idea where Sophia gets her looks or her sweet nature since it’s clearly not from you. A normal brother would have helped us when Mama died out of compassion for your orphan nieces and love for your only sister, but
you
had to be paid a king’s ransom to house us once Kit
was at sea mending all our fortunes,’ she told him bitterly as she saw the weasel look in his eyes and realised he’d known about this horrid scheme all along. ‘Don’t worry, Uncle William, I wouldn’t spend five minutes under your roof now if the only alternative was the workhouse.’

Which seemed unlikely since her dowry was substantial, thanks to Kit’s efforts; if she could escape Charlton she’d live on that if Kit wouldn’t let her share his new bachelor home in Chelsea. A share of her fortune would fill Uncle William’s coffers very nicely, of course, but while her uncle and aunt had clearly plotted against her, could her cousin Sophia have known what was afoot? Louisa shook her head very warily and decided to trust one of two certainties in this shifting world that she suddenly seemed to have stumbled into. Cousin Sophia was far too amiable and feather-headed to be party to such a plan. She wondered how Uncle William came to have a sister like her lion-hearted, stubborn mother, and such a sweet widgeon for a daughter. Deciding the mysteries of heredity were unaccountable, she crept on along the façade of the hired town house, still trying to block the killing drop
to the flagged pavement three storeys below from her thoughts.

Louisa didn’t intend to marry; now the man she didn’t want to marry most of all was threatening her very soul, she wished she’d never agreed to give the marriage mart another try to appease her brother and sister. Her heart hammered against her breastbone as she took an unwary glance into the street below and fancied Death was creeping along the ledge behind her, his cold breath on her neck and bony fingers clutching a ghostly scythe. Since she’d rather die than wed Charlton, she crept on, keeping her thoughts busy with what came next.

Could she evade her uncle and Charlton until her brother came home to dismiss their antics as the farce they ought to be? Her brother’s house would be the first place anyone would look for her and his minions lacked the authority or power to repel her enemies. Not quite true; one of Kit’s employees had both and she recalled her encounter with Kit’s most notorious captain as she ghosted past the empty rooms on this part of the third floor inch by heart-racing inch. Captain Hugh Darke had made a vivid impression on her, but he was one step from being a pirate and the rudest
man she’d ever met, so little wonder if the image of him had lingered on her senses and her memory long after the man had left her alone in Kit’s office.

Considering she’d spent mere seconds in Captain Darke’s darkly brooding, offensively arrogant company, his abrupt insolence and the satirical glint in his silver-blue eyes shouldn’t haunt her as they did. She fumbled her handhold on the neatly jointed stone at the very thought of explaining this latest misadventure to sternly indifferent Hugh Darke and had to swallow a very unladylike curse while she scrambled for another and terror threatened to ruin her escape in a very final way.

‘Confoundedly inconvenient, ill-mannered, cocksure braggart of a man,’ she muttered very softly to herself as she inched round the corner of the Portland Stone–faced building and finally reached the drainpipe to cling onto until the rapid beat of her heart slowed while she thought out her next move.

Better with solid-feeling metal under her clutching hands, she decided to go upwards, since she’d got this far and risked being seen on the way down. Better to wait for solid ground under her feet after she had reached the last of this terrace of genteel houses,
where there was less chance of being discovered clambering down from the rooftops of a stranger’s house, than if she swarmed down this one like some large and very fearful fly. The idea of meeting Charlton’s bullies again made her shudder with horror and she forced herself to forget their jeering comments and greedy eyes as she crept across the rooftops of Charlton’s unsuspecting neighbours.

She reached the quiet and blissfully sleeping house on the end of the row and wasted a few precious moments debating whether to risk the roofs of the humbler mews that ran alongside the high town houses and reluctantly decided against it. Night had made courts and alleyways, relatively safe in daylight, into the haunts of the desperate and dangerous, but there were too many leaps into the unknown to spring across uncharted voids and risk the slightest miscalculation bringing her crashing down to earth.

Slipping very cautiously to the ground at last, Louisa blessed Charlton’s love of the macabre for the ridiculous suit of black she’d found in a chest he’d thought safely locked. She grinned at the idea of him clumsily creeping about in the dark in some half-hearted imitation of Francis Dashwood’s infamous
Hell-Fire Club of the last century and refused to even consider what Charlton got up to in his other life. His dark clothes had helped her escape and made her hard to see in the dark, so she blessed his secret vices for once and crept on through the chilling night.

Kit’s house was the only place that offered her immediate sanctuary and access to the store of money he’d once shown her, in case she was ever in dire need of it and he was away from home. How prophetic of him, she decided, and at least she would be safe until dawn. Apparently six years of dull respectability had taught her to fear her native streets, so she launched into the fuggy darkness with her heart beating like a war drum and prayed she’d find her way in the dark before she aroused the interest of the night-hawks.

*

Captain Hugh Darke woke very reluctantly from the nice little drunken stupor that he’d worked hard to achieve all the previous evening and peered at the ceiling above his head with only the faint, town-bred moonlight to help him work out whose it was and, more importantly, why some malicious elf was jumping about on his mysterious host’s roof and
waking him from the best sleep he’d had in weeks.

‘And now I’ve got the devil of a head as well,’ he muttered, much aggrieved at such a lack of consideration by whoever owned the bed he was currently occupying.

An insomniac clog dancer, perhaps? Or an iron master with a rush order his unfortunate founders must work all night to fulfil? Although that didn’t work; even he knew no iron founder would carry out his sulphurous trade anywhere but on the ground floor and there’d be smoke, lots of smoke, and flaring furnaces belching out infernal heat, and, if anything, it was rather cool in here. In a moment of reluctant fairness, he forced himself to admit it was a very quiet racket, furtive even; he wondered uneasily what bad company he’d got himself into this time. He shrugged, decided he wasn’t that good company himself and concluded there was no point trying to sleep through it, reminding himself he’d faced down far worse threats than an incompetent burglar before now.

Not being content to cower under the bedclothes and wait for this now almost-silent menace to pass him by—if only he’d bothered to get under them in the first place, of
course—he decided to find whoever it was and silence them so he could get back to sleep. If he went about it briskly enough, perhaps he could avoid succumbing to the best cure for his various ills that he’d ever come across—a hair of the dog who’d bitten him—and spare himself an even worse hangover come morning. He’d long ago given up pretending everything about his life he didn’t like would go away if he ignored it, so he swung his feet to the floor; even as his head left the pillow it thumped violently in protest, as if the elf had gotten bored with dancing on the ceiling and come into his room to beat out a dance on the inside of his reeling skull instead.

‘Confounded din,’ he mumbled and, liking the sound of his own voice in the suddenly eerily quiet house, he roared out a challenge in his best hear-it-over-a-hurricane-at-sea bark. ‘I
said
you’re making a confounded din!’ he bellowed as he stamped through the doorway into a stairwell that looked vaguely familiar.

‘Not half as much of a one as you are,’ a woman’s voice snapped back as if he were the intruder and she had a perfect right to steal about in the dark.

Her voice was as low and throaty as it was distinctive, so Hugh wondered if she was more
afraid of drawing attention to her peculiar nocturnal activities than she was willing to admit. Yet the very sound of her husky tones roused fantasies he’d been trying to forget for days. Her voice reminded him of honey and mid-summer, and the response of his fool body to her presence made him groan out loud, before he reminded himself the witch was Kit Stone’s woman and would never be his.

He cursed the day he’d first laid eyes on the expensive-looking houri in his friend’s fine new offices dressed in an excellent imitation of a lady’s restrained finery, with an outrageous bonnet whose curling feathers had been dyed to try to match the apparently matchless dark eyes she had stared so boldly at him with. Such a speculative, unladylike deep-blue gaze it had been as well, wide and curious and fathomless as the Mediterranean, and he’d felt his body respond like a warhorse to the drum without permission from his furious brain. It had seemed more urgent that Kit never discover his notorious captain lusted after his mistress than handing over the report of his latest voyage his employer had demanded as soon as he’d docked in person, so Hugh had left the expensive high-stepper alone in Kit’s
office with a gauchely mumbled excuse and a loud sigh of relief.

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