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Показать все книги автора/авторов: Powell Elizabeth

«A Reckless Bargain», Elizabeth Powell

Иллюстрация к книге

To my husband, Bill,

who will always be my hero.


Chapter One


June, 1813


Pliny, Plutarch, Quintilian… She frowned. Where was Pope? He had been here just a moment ago; she would swear to it. She checked again. Pope had gone missing.

Her lower lip caught between her teeth, her brow furrowed with concentration, Kit Mallory stood atop the rickety stepladder, sorting through an awkward armful of leather-bound books, when she heard the library door creak open.

"Mrs. Mallory, I would speak with you!" exclaimed an imperious voice.

Oh, no. Not again.

Kit started, her grip loosened, and the books tumbled from her arms to land with several tumultuous thumps on the floor below. The ladder swayed, and she made a mad grab for the railings. She righted herself, then stood stock-still for several moments, her pulse pounding loudly in her ears, her eyes closed against a sudden wave of dizziness as the room, ladder and all, seemed to tilt beneath her.

Gooseflesh prickled over her skin as she realized just how close she'd come to falling. And with the realization came a rush of anger. She looked down at the books heaped at the base of the ladder and exhaled slowly; none of them appeared to be damaged. She twisted around to glare at the intruder. "I told you before, the answer is-oh!"

A familiar figure stood in the doorway, but not the one she was expecting. Tall and angular, in a round gown of vibrant purple silk trimmed with teal velvet ribbons, with dozens of strands of pearls looped around her long, wrinkled neck, the lady commanded one's immediate attention. Soft curls of gray hair protruded from beneath her turban, a creation of teal silk adorned with a diamond brooch and three immense plumes. Sharp black eyes and a rather prominent nose gave her a striking, but not unhandsome countenance.

"Your Grace!" Kit gasped, horrified by her rudeness. "Forgive me. I had no idea you were here."

"So I gathered," replied the Dowager Duchess of Wexcombe, unruffled. "The fault is mine, child, for startling you so. Now come down from there at once, before you do yourself an injury."

Kit descended the ladder with gingerly steps. "You might have given me a little warning, ma'am. These volumes are irreplaceable." She knelt to collect the fallen tomes, then started to pile them on a nearby chair.

"Stop fussing with those books, girl, and pay attention." The elderly woman raised her gold-rimmed lorgnette and eyed Kit up and down. "Goodness, what on earth have you been doing? You look like a sparrow that has been bathing in the dust all day."

Kit brushed her hands against her drab brown skirt and pushed a few stray locks of hair from her eyes. "Not quite all day, Your Grace."

"Hmph," sniffed the duchess, her lips compressed in a thin line as she turned her attention to the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves that lined the room, then to the haphazard stacks that teetered atop almost every table and chair. She held out a lacy, embroidered kerchief. "There is a smudge on your nose."

Obediently, Kit took the cambric square and daubed at the offending mark.

"Really, Mrs. Mallory," Her Grace continued, "you cannot keep yourself locked up day after day with these moldy old books. 'Tis most unnatural."

"I do believe Your Grace has made your disapproval known on more than one occasion."

The older lady arched an eyebrow. "Are you being impertinent?"

Try as she might, Kit could not keep the corners of her mouth from twitching. "Oh, yes, ma'am. Every day, and as often as possible."

The duchess laughed and held out her gloved hands. "Saucebox. How glad I am to see you again. Do you never tire of this little game of mine?"

"Never." Kit took the lady's hands in her own and gave them a fond squeeze. "I was beginning to despair, thinking you were not coming. I trust you are well?"

"Well enough, considering my age and my temper."

Kit grinned. "And how was your trip from London?"

"Cold, wet, and thoroughly unpleasant," replied the duchess with asperity. "I vow it must have rained the entire time-mud up to one's ankles! But I did not come here to bore you with such stories; we have important matters to discuss. Will you invite me to take tea with you, or must I ring for the servants myself?"

"Best to let me do it; you will terrify them," Kit replied with a chuckle, then led her guest to the drawing room.

While Kit rang for tea, the dowager duchess seated herself on the lion-footed sofa by the hearth. The lady smoothed her skirts, then examined the room through her lorgnette. "You have made a few improvements to the place."

Kit lowered herself onto the rosewood chair opposite the duchess. "The house seemed so… so bare and colorless, and I couldn't stand it any longer. My late husband's solicitor thinks it barbaric-oh, he is too polite to say as much, but I can see it in the way his face puckers up like a prune whenever he steps through the front door. But I have never given a fig for the fickle dictates of fashion. This is my home, and I shall do as I please."

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