title="a reckless bargain"
this is a work of fiction. names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the
author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead,
business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
all rights reserved.
copyright 2002 by elizabeth peterson
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and could subject the infringer to criminal and civil liability.
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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\u2014oh!"
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
"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
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\u2014mud 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
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\u2014oh,
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."
the duchess nodded, and the plumes on her turban nodded with her. "as it should be. you are no
milk-and-water miss, and this house was in desperate need of some character."
character? kit allowed herself a small chuckle. most gently reared ladies would gasp and turn pale
\u2014if not faint outright\u2014at the pagan splendors of her drawing room, which included a carved
sandalwood screen, a tiger-skin rug, and colorful hindu masks on the walls. sensuous stone
goddesses graced the wall on either side of the hearth. woven rugs in brilliant hues covered the
floor. fragrant wisps of flowery incense curled from a brass burner on the mantelpiece. the rest of
the georgian-style residence was decorated in much the same way, or it would be once she finished
"if i could have, i would have brought along the whole of calcutta," she replied. her smile began to
fade around the edges.
"do you miss india very much?" through the lorgnette, the duchess's eyes appeared unnaturally
"it was the only place i ever felt truly at home."
those large eyes softened. "a pity your situation would not allow you to remain."
kit laced her fingers in her lap to stop their nervous fidgets. her grace was coming painfully close to
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