Home > A Rogue of One's Own (A League of Extraordinary Women #2)

A Rogue of One's Own (A League of Extraordinary Women #2)
Author: Evie Dunmore

Chapter 1

 

 

Buckinghamshire, Summer 1865


   Young ladies did not lie prone on the rug behind the library’s chesterfield and play chess against themselves. They did not stuff their cheeks with boiled sweets before breakfast. Lucie knew this. But it was the summer holidays and the dullest of them yet: Tommy had come home from Eton a proper prig who wouldn’t play with girls anymore; newly arrived cousin Cecily was the type of child who cried easily; and, at barely thirteen years of age, Lucie found she was too young to just decorously die of boredom. Her mother, on the other hand, would probably consider this quite a noble death. Then again, to the Countess of Wycliffe, most things were preferable over hoydenish behavior.

   The smell of leather and dust was in her nose and the library was pleasantly silent. Morning sun pooled on the chessboard and made the white queen shine bright like a beacon. She was in peril—a rogue knight had set a trap, and Her Majesty could now choose to sacrifice herself to protect the king, or to let him fall. Lucie’s fingers hovered over the polished ivory crown, indecisive.

   Rapid footsteps echoed in the hallway.

   Her mother’s delicate heels—but Mother never ran?

   The door flew open.

   “How could you? How could you?”

   Lucie froze. Her mother’s voice was trembling with outrage.

   The door slammed shut again and the floor shook from the force of it.

   “In front of everyone, the whole ballroom—”

   “Come now, must you carry on so?”

   Her stomach felt hollow. It was her father, his tone coldly bored and cutting.

   “Everyone knows, while I’m abed at home, oblivious!”

   “Good Gad. Why Rochester’s wife calls herself your friend is beyond me—she fills your ears with gossip and now look at you, raving like a madwoman. Why, I should have sent her away last night; it is rather like her erratic self to invite herself, to arrive late and unannounced—”

   “She stays,” snapped Mama. “She must stay—one honest person in a pit of snakes.”

   Her father laughed. “Lady Rochester, honest? Have you seen her son? What an odd little ginger fellow—I’d wager a thousand pounds he isn’t even Rochester’s spawn—”

   “What about you, Wycliffe? How many have you spawned among your side pieces?”

   “Now. This is below you, wife.”

   There was a pause, and it stretched and grew heavy like a lead blanket.

   Lucie’s heart was drumming against her ribs, hard and painful, the thuds so loud, they had to hear it.

   A sob shattered the quiet and it hit her stomach like a punch. Her mother was crying.

   “I beseech you, Thomas. What have I done wrong so you won’t even grant me discretion?”

   “Discretion—madam, your screeching can be heard from miles away!”

   “I gave you Tommy,” she said between sobs. “I nearly died giving you Tommy and yet you flaunt that . . . that person—in front of everyone.”

   “Saints, grant me patience—why am I shackled to such an overemotional female?”

   “I love you so, Thomas. Why, why can’t you love me?”

   A groan, fraught with impatience. “I love you well enough, wife, though your hysterics do make it a challenge.”

   “Why must it be so?” Mama keened. “Why am I not enough for you?”

   “Because, my dear, I am a man. May I have some peace in my library now, please.”

   A hesitation; then, a gasp that sounded like surrender.

   The thud of the heavy door falling shut once more came from a distance. A roar filled Lucie’s ears. Her throat was clogged with boiled sweets; she’d have to breathe through her mouth. But he would hear her.

   She could hold out. She would not breathe.

   The snick of a lighter. Wycliffe had lit a cigarette. Floorboards creaked. Leather crunched. He had settled into his armchair.

   Her lungs were burning, and her fingers were white as bone, alien and clawlike against the dizzying swirls of the rug.

   Still she lay silent. King and queen blurred before her eyes.

   She could hold out.

   Black began edging her vision. It was as though she’d never breathe again.

   Paper rustled. The earl was reading the morning news.

 

* * *

 

 

   A mile from the library, deep in the cool green woods of Wycliffe Park, Tristan Ballentine, the second son of the Earl of Rochester, had just decided to spend all his future summers at Wycliffe Hall. He might have to befriend Tommy, Greatest Prig at Eton, to put this plan into practice, but the morning walks alone would be worth it. Unlike the estate of his family seat, where every shrub was pruned and accounted for, Wycliffe Park left nature to its own devices. Trees gnarled. Shrubbery sprawled. The air was sweet with the fragrance of forest flowers. And he had found a most suitable place for reading Wordsworth: a circular clearing at the end of a hollow way. A large standing stone loomed at its center.

   Dew drenched his trouser legs as he circled the monolith. It looked suspiciously like a fairy stone, weathered and conical, planted here before all time. Of course, at twelve years of age, he was too old to believe in fairies and the like. His father had made this abundantly clear. Poetry, too, was forbidden in Ashdown Castle. Romantic lines ran counter to the Ballentine motto, “With Valor and Vigor.” But here, who could find him? Who would see? His copy of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads was at the ready.

   He shrugged out of his coat and spread it on the grass, then made to stretch himself out on his belly. The fine fabric of his trousers promptly grated like chain mail against the broken skin on his backside, making him hiss in pain. His father drove his lessons home with a cane. And yesterday, the earl had been overzealous, again. It was why Mama had grabbed him, Tristan, and he had grabbed his books, and they had taken off to visit her friend Lady Wycliffe for the summer.

   He tried finding a comfortable position, shifting this way and that, then he gave up, unhooked his braces and began unbuttoning the fall of the pesky trousers. The next moment, the ground began to shake.

   For a beat, he froze.

   He snatched his coat and dove behind the standing stone just as a black horse thundered into view in the hollow-way. A magnificent animal, gleaming with sweat, foam flying from its bit. The kind of stallion kings and heroes rode. It scrambled to a sudden halt on the clearing, sending lumps of soil flying with plate-sized hooves.

   He gasped with shocked surprise.

   The rider was no king. No hero. The rider was not a man at all.

   It was a girl.

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