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Amanda Gilbertson was hiding from her father’s choice for her fiancé when she encountered black-masked Captain Rakehell at midnight in the garden. No fop like Lord Lesley Earnshaw could have swept her into an embrace like the captain’s. Thief or not, he had stolen her heart, and Amanda was determined to learn his identity.
Regency Romance by Lynn Michaels writing as Jane Lynson; originally published by Fawcett Crest
If he hadn’t tripped over a muddy, grass-stained slipper beneath the thick-limbed beech tree in the farthermost corner of the garden behind the Dowager Duchess of Braxton’s elegant Bond Street mansion, Andrew Gilbertson, the Viscount Welsey, never would have found his twin. In the smoky glimmer of the lantern he’d filched from the stables when he’d looked there for his sister, he saw that the slipper and its mate—turned on one side a half pace to his right—were indeed the same rosy shade of pink as Amanda’s gown.
“Gave yourself away leaving your shoes down here,” Andrew said, frowning as he raised the lantern.
The feeble light it cast only just reached the second crotch of the old tree, where his twin sister, Lady Amanda Gilbertson, sat on a broad limb with her back against the main trunk. Her skirts were gathered up around her knees, exposing her slim calves and delicate ankles. The hem of her gown, torn and muddy, shimmered in the flickering glow of the lantern.
“I tucked my slippers in my bodice,” Amanda replied, leaning on her right arm to look down at her brother, “but they fell out on the way up.
“Wouldn’t have if you had a bodice.”
Laughing good-naturedly, Amanda leaned farther out over the limb to grin at Andrew. Her Grecian curls, so painstakingly styled by her dresser, had fallen against her shoulder in wispy loops that gleamed a deep, burnished red in the lantern light.
“Insult me, Andy, and you insult yourself.”
Which was true enough. Though Andrew was much taller, a hair’s breadth over six feet, with an admirably fine chest (which Amanda had always thought should have been hers), the rest of their features—classically flawless nose, lofty cheekbones, and slightly dimpled chin—and their rich mahogany brown hair and sapphire blue eyes, were exactly alike.
Had they been the same sex the Gilbertson twins would have been identical. As it was, they were and had been throughout their nearly one and twenty years, virtually inseparable. Until this moment, Andrew had always thought his mother’s dire warnings about Amanda being allowed to share his tutors and his riding and shooting lessons silly and unfounded. But the sight of her astraddle the limb, her hair in disarray, and her gown—the cost of which had prompted Lord Hampton to ring for a whiskey—in tatters, he wished he and his father had listened.
“Couldn’t you have found a place to hide from Captain Earnshaw that wouldn’t have ruined your gown and your hair?”
“I am not hiding from that loathsome man,” Amanda replied mildly, as she settled herself against the trunk again. “I am simply waiting for the stars to fall.”
Andrew glanced up at the night sky. Astronomy had never been his best subject, yet he’d gleaned enough of the science to know there was very little chance Polaris would tumble out of its place in Ursa Minor.
“I think you’re going to have a long wait, Mandy. They look pretty firmly fixed to me.”
“You goose!” She laughed. “I don’t mean all the stars, just some of them. Or perhaps little pieces of them. Although Charles isn’t at all sure—”
“Charles!” Andrew cried, taken aback. “Is this the kind of thing he writes to you about?”
“Well, of course it is,” Amanda returned, glancing down at him curiously.
“The Duke of Braxton writes to you about falling stars—not falling in love?”
“Andy!” Amanda breathed indignantly. “Charles is a gentleman! It would be highly indelicate for him to confide his affairs to me!”
“Oh, bloody hell!” Andrew sagged against the beech on one shoulder, the lantern sputtering as it clanked against the trunk. “If I’d had any idea what you were up to, Mandy, I would never have agreed to be your go-between!”
“Go-between?” she echoed. “How could you even consider that passing on the letters Charles sends to me in your name only because Mama and Papa would decree it unseemly for a man of his age and rank to correspond with me as playing the go-between?”
Her brother didn’t answer, just swept one hand over his eyes and shook his head. His reaction spoke volumes to Amanda, who began to laugh, so richly and so wildly that she nearly fell out of the tree.
“Oh, Andy, you nodcock!” Still laughing, she caught an overhead branch and used it to right herself on her perch. “Charles is interested in my mind, not my hand!”
If Charles Earnshaw, the Duke of Braxton and Captain Lord Lesley Earnshaw’s older brother, would but once raise his head from the musty books in his library, Andrew thought ruefully, he would see that Amanda, whose bare, dangling legs gleamed like alabaster in the lantern glow, had more than a mind to interest him.
“From the way you two had your heads together at the dowager duchess’s last house party,” he said testily, as he set the lantern down on the spongy ground, “I thought you had formed an attachment!”
“We have, but not of that sort,” Amanda retorted loftily. “Charles and I share common interests in science and history and languages and—”
“Then what in blazes are you doing in that tree?”
“Don’t ring a peal over me, Andrew Gilbertson! And I’ve already told you what I’m doing up here!”
“Why couldn’t you step out on the terrace to watch the stars fall?”
“Because then, you dunce head, Captain Earnshaw would be able to find me!”
“Aha!” Andrew flung an accusatory index finger at his sister. “You admit you’re hiding!”
“Of course I am!” Amanda shot back, her eyes flashing angrily. “You know I loathe Lesley Earnshaw! He’s a toadeater and a wretch! One minute so fawningly nice to me I could gag, and the next sneaking behind me to pull my hair or put a bug down my back!”
“For heaven’s sake,” Andrew spat exasperatedly, “that was ten years ago! We were children!”
“What about the night he tied my dress sash to my chair, and after dinner I couldn’t stand up? Or the day he slipped a cocklebur under your pony’s saddle and he threw you?”
“I admit Lesley was a bit of a prankster—”
“A prankster!” Amanda cried. “He’s a bully! Why, when we were only eleven and he was sixteen, he blacked your eye! Or have you forgotten that?”
“I forget what sent Lesley and me at each other, but I do remember that I was quite holding my own until you jumped into the fracas to save me! And none of this, Mandy, has any bearing whatsoever on you being up a tree!”
“Which is precisely where I am, metaphorically as well as physically,” she retorted. “Because I’ve been out for three Seasons and Papa hasn’t been deluged with offers for me, he and Mama think I’m hopelessly on the shelf! Don’t be deceived, Andy, that’s why they’re determined to marry me off to Lesley Earnshaw, because the shame of a spinster in the family is too much for them! In their opinion, it’s far better I be married to such a vile Master Jackanapes than never married at all!”
“Mandy,” Andrew said patiently. “You haven’t seen Lesley since he blacked my eye, since before he went up to Oxford and then into the Dragoons. He’s a war hero! He fought quite bravely in the Peninsula and at Waterloo—”
“He’s also fought two duels,” Amanda interrupted, “and has kept a string of high steppers!”
“Good God!” Andrew exploded. “Who teaches you words like that?”
“You do, clothhead!”
Indeed he did, Andrew recollected, only vaguely able to recall the last time he’d come in cup shot from his club, and Amanda had taken advantage of his well-corned state to wheedle the latest cant phrases out of him.
“Well, you shouldn’t repeat them,” he blustered. “And if you value my life, you won’t let on to Captain Earnshaw that you know about his—er—connections among the muslin company.”
“I won’t betray you, Andy. Why, without you, I should be totally ignorant of the ways of men and women.”
“And promise me you won’t tell Mama you know anything about that, either.”
“Anything about what?”
“The—ah,” — he paused to clear his throat— “ways of men and women.”
“Of course I won’t! I shouldn’t want to confuse her.”
“But especially promise you won’t breathe a word to Captain Earnshaw.”
“Don’t worry, Andy. I can’t possibly breathe a word of anything to a man I have no intention of ever speaking to!”
“Mandy,” Andrew spoke her name sharply, his patience growing thin. “You can’t stay up in that tree forever.”
“No, I can’t,” she agreed. “But there are lots of other trees in London, hundreds at Hampton Hall, and absolute hundreds of thousands all over England. If necessary I’ll climb every last one of them to evade Lesley Earnshaw!”
And she would, too. Andrew knew his sister, and the resolute set of her jaw, as well as he knew himself.
“You’re being childish, Mandy,” he said forcefully. “Stop it this instant and come down from there.”
“When the ball is over and everyone’s gone home I’ll come down, but not a second before.”
“Papa is turning the duchess’s house topsy-turvy looking for you, and Mama is beside herself. You must come down!”
“I won’t!” Amanda declared fiercely.
“Lesley hasn’t even arrived yet, and at this late hour he isn’t likely to! Now come down!”
“Very well. Then you leave me no choice but to bring you down.”
It took him two tries, but Andrew finally leaped high enough to catch the lowest limb of the ancient beech. How Amanda, even though she was two parts monkey when it came to climbing trees, had managed it, he couldn’t fathom. Grunting, he swung his right leg over the limb, levered himself into a sitting position, and looked up to see that his sister had scrambled from the second to the third crotch. There was only one more above her; beyond that, the branches were considerably thinner and much farther between.
“Don’t even think it,” Andrew warned breathlessly.
“I’ll climb to the very top and jump,” she threatened, “before I’ll let you drag me in there to be married against my will!”
“There’s no parson on the guest list, Mandy.” He paused to catch his wind and consider a new tactic. “You’ve been quite the envy of the evening, you know, even in your absence. All the marriageable young ladies are saying how positively green they are that you’ve captured Captain Earnshaw sight unseen.”
“What?” Amanda shrieked. “Mama swore she’d keep mum!”
“Er, well, perhaps I misunderstood.”
“And perhaps you’ve sided with Mama and Papa against me!” Amanda climbed two branches higher and glared down at him reproachfully. “How could you, Andy!”
“Don’t be totty-headed! Of course I haven’t sided against you! But hiding in trees will do you no good. What if Papa comes looking in the garden? Or Mama, or—”
“Shhh!” Amanda hissed, pressing a finger to her lips.
Andrew heard it then, a faint rustling of stealthy footsteps in the shrubbery outside the low wall that enclosed the garden. It was faint, yet growing closer to the beech tree, whose limbs overhung the bushes and the gate in the wall. There would be no need for his father, he realized, or any of the other guests to move so furtively.
From the proximity of the footsteps, Andrew gauged he hadn’t time enough to get Amanda down and safely into the house. Dropping noiselessly to the ground, he extinguished the lantern, swung himself up into the beech again, and climbed to a stout limb just one below Amanda. She laid her right hand, her fingers trembling, on his shoulder.
There was a thump and a muffled crash in the bushes just outside the gate. Amanda started, her fingers digging painfully into Andrew’s collarbone.
“ ‘Arry, ou idget!” spat a hoarse, low voice.
“Keep yer damn big dew beaters out from under mine, will ya?”
“Sorry, Jack, sorry!” Harry answered tremulously. “Didn’ see you’d stopped, s’all. Bloody damn dark t’night!”
He pronounced it ‘noight,’ and the fact that he and Jack were skulking in the shrubbery told Andrew they were up to no good. The gate rattled, and Amanda’s fingers dug deeper into his shoulder. Wincing, he loosened her grip.
“‘Ere’s the gate, then. We’ll wait ‘ere for ‘im like ‘e said.”
“We could climb over, Jack. This ‘ere wall ain’t n’more ‘an four feet.”
There was a thump and a yowl in the bushes.
“We ain’t s’posed t’be seen, ya idget! We’s t’wait ‘ere on this side ‘o the wall ‘til ‘e whistles us over t’take the loot from ‘im.”
“Sorry, Jack. I forgot s’all.”
“All right, then,” Jack grumbled. “Now dub yer mummer.”
Twigs snapped and leaves crackled as Harry and Jack settled down in the bushes to wait.
“Can’t we climb down and sneak past them?” Amanda asked, her voice so low Andrew could barely hear her.
“Not with you in a satin gown,” he whispered. “Your skirts would make more racket than the shrubbery.”
“We just can’t sit here,” she hissed in his ear. “They mean to rob the house! And perhaps all the guests! Mama and Papa could be in danger!”
“Be still, Mandy. These are desperate men. Our best course is to sit here and keep quiet until they’ve gone away.”
Twisting around, Andrew clapped his hand over Amanda’s mouth.
“Dub yer mummer,” he muttered, “or you’ll give us away.”