It took a moment before Araminta recognized the only reason that could account for the Duke’s presence in the tunnel. “You are the French spy?” she gasped. “Or…spies?” she added, looking around at the cousins.
“We are Dashings; what could we be but French?” the Duke replied. “A land that has always been the epitome of culture, fashion and a certain je ne sais quoi elegance. Though I am not at all happy about the deprecations the job plays upon one’s wardrobe.”
“Pays well enough to purchase new, though,” one of the cousins remarked
At that, fury at their comments and the fact of having had, for the second time in the same day, a pistol drawn upon her, overcame Araminta’s better judgement. Heedless of her safety, she turned on them in rage.
“Mr. Hodges, have you no shame? A vicar, abandoning the succor of innocent souls for lure of filthy lucre? And you, your Grace, a peer of the realm! How could you—all of you”—she gestured toward the cousins, “repay your country so? I wouldn’t allow you to rescue me, even if you had your white destrier here!”
“I think you’ve said quite enough,” the Duke retorted. “So, what am I do with our lovely, albeit tattered, prize, gentlemen? I’d thought to charm her into agreeing to allow us the continued use of this tunnel.”
“You thought to charm me into treason?” Araminta exclaimed. “How could you believe such a thing possible?”
“Well, I am a Duke, which means I can charm any female. Indeed, usually they fall at my feet, or onto to their backs, at the mere mention of my title. Don’t you find it so?” he asked, turning to address his cousins.
“Bien sûr!” “Oui!” “Absolutely!” the cousins murmured in agreement. “Best part of being a Duke,” another added
“Aside from the possession of vast estates, numerous manors, countless hounds and horses, armies of servants to do our bidding, and immense wealth,” Dashing observed.
“How could you play the spy against a country that provides all that for you?” Araminta demanded.
“Country didn’t provide it,” the Duke objected. “We got it by being Dashing. And dukely. ‘Tis the same, after all, but that’s neither here nor there. Now that you’ve stumbled upon us before I had the chance to seduce you into acquiescence, I fear I shall have to remove you, as we do any impediment that gets in our way. Do we not, gentlemen?” he asked, waving the pistol negligently toward his cousins.
Fear belatedly chilled Araminta and she regretted her bold talk. Should she attempt to fall at the Duke’s feet—she no longer felt inclined to fall on her back—and try to charm him into letting her go with some false protestations about a sudden conversion to their cause?
Before she could decide, she heard—once again—the unmistakeable click of pistols being cocked.
From out of the gloomy rushlight, a stranger walked forward with a pistol in each hand, one trained upon the Duke, the other upon Hodges
“Free the lady, your Grace, and neither you nor Hodges move, or this breath will be your last.”
Hodges cowered, but the Duke merely laughed. “Have you forgotten I am still armed? Shall I shoot you now, or let my cousins disarm you? Thirteen--or rather twelve now--against one are odds that favor me, sir.”
“You’ll get no help from them; I drugged their brandy,” the intrepid stranger replied. Indeed, as Araminta peered into the gloom, she discovered the assorted Duke-of-Dashing look-alikes had all dozed off.
“At this range, I can blow a hole through you before you can get that pistol back into firing position,” he warned as the Duke made a motion to raise his weapon.
Upon closer inspection, though well-built, dark-haired and ruggedly handsome, the Duke’s challenger did not resemble him as much as she’d initially thought. As he stood there, stoutly defending her, his aura of powerful masculinity nearly palpable, Araminta felt faint, while heat rushed to her nether regions.
Instinctively she knew a lady who fell on her back for him would end up very satisfied indeed. Lusty images of the two of them, their limbs entangled in the gloom, invaded her mind. Trembling, she tried to shut them out. Oh, what had come over her today?
To divert herself, she cried, “Who are you, then, sir?”
“Andrew Dubois Eugene Deepwater, corsair by trade,” he replied. “Though my ship and Caribbean crew are now signed on to serve the Crown.”
She gasped again as the meaning of his words penetrated. “You are a…pirate, you mean?”
The Duke grunted. “Thought you didn’t look that familiar. Shouldn’t have believed that story of your being the by-blow of Great Aunt Thelma’s cousin’s sister’s run-away youngest son, but how was I to know? You speak French so beautifully! And with so many cousins and all of them Dukes, how can I be expected to keep track of them?”
Ignoring Dashing’s complaining, Deepwater replied, “Though some have called me ‘pirate,’ I prefer to think of myself as a sea-going adventure capitalist. In any event, I do my sailing at the bidding of England now, and I’ve been tracking this bunch of ne’er-do-wells for some time.”
“You are in league with Lord Torquill and Jim, er Bob, the highwayman, then?”
Deepwater gave a disgusted huff. “Torquil’s been too distracted by his voluptuous mistress to be of much help, and Bob too attracted by profits from smuggling and fish. But the work is finished now. You two,” he inclined his weapons toward Dashing and Hodges, “back into the corner with rest. And I’ll have that pistol, Dashing.”
“Never!” the Duke roared.
Unflinching, Deepwater merely replied softly, “Loath as I am to distress a lady, move that hand another inch upward, Dashing, and I’ll shoot you where you stand. And don’t think to flee,” he warned Hodges. “I’m perfectly capable of shooting with deadly accuracy from both pistols at once. How do you think I captured the many prize ships that have made me so fabulously wealthy?”
While Hodges whimpered, Deepwater and Dashing glared at each other. After a moment, the Duke, apparently realizing neither his rank nor his wealth nor his charm would allow him to prevail against the privateer, carefully laid down his weapon.
“Never dreamt a duke could be bested by a pirate,” he said sulkily. “And one not even truly related!”
Advancing slowly, Deepwater backed the two men into the alcove containing the Duke’s gently-snoring cousins.
Tossing her a quick glance over his shoulder, he said, “Won’t you come with me and give testimony about the sabotage of your carriage, the plot you’ve uncovered, the men you’ve discovered to be involved, and the wreckage of your parasol?”
“If we leave, won’t they simply flee?” she asked.
“I’ve contrived a way to seal off tunnel; it’s already barred at the Ambleforth House end. There’s food and water here, enough for them to rest snugly until we return with the authorities.”
“Rush him!” the Duke snarled to Hodges.
“Impossible!” Hodges wailed. “I’m much too overheated already to run!”
In the next instant, Deepwater tossed down one of his pistols, which fired in the direction of the Duke, halting him in mid-stride. Grabbing her arm, the corsair raced with her toward the tunnel’s secret entrance.
Just before they reached it, he halted abruptly and kicked at a bracing timber. With a creaking groan, the tunnel ceiling buckled, then fell in a rush of dirt, debris and crashing beams. As the dust settled behind them, Deepwater led her out into the daylight.
“So, my lovely lady, will you come with me? Make for the ship I’ve stationed in the river, sail to London and present this vital evidence before the Crown? The courageous Lady Ambleforth, who thwarted a clever secret ring of British aristocrats spying for French, would be the toast of the capitol. And Queen of my heart,” he added in a murmur.
Araminta stood irresolute, a hand to her throat where the pulse beat wildly. What should she do?
Abandon caution and go to London with this dashing pirate-turned-King’s-agent?
Find Sir Ed and beg the devilishly attractive local entrepreneur—she had another vision of him rising, naked, from the pond--to escort her safely back to Ambleforth, where she could write out an account of what she’d learned for Deepwater to present to the authorities, while she recuperated from the excitement of today’s adventure?
Claim one last kiss from Jim-Bob before she became respectable Lady Ambleforth again, and returned home to discover whether Groom Jack should be rewarded for rushing to her aide--or sacked for aiding the Duke’s sabotage scheme?
As she debated, Deepwater kept his smoldering gaze fixed upon her.
Come back tomorrow for the next installment of Lady Ambleforth's adventure!
JULIA JUSTISS is the author of 17 Regency historical romances. Her new series, THE RANSLEIGH ROGUES, will debut in 2013 with Max's story and Will's story. Find news about her books on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and her website, www.juliajustiss.com.