An Unlikely Countess

By: Jo Beverley

Chapter 1

Northallerton, Yorkshire

March 1765

He was drunk, but could still see well enough in the dimly lit street. Well enough to detect ruffians at work. And that the victim was a woman.

Catesby Burgoyne grinned, drew his sword, and charged. At his battle cry the ruffians whirled toward him, eyes white rimmed, mouths agape. And then they fled.

Cate staggered to a halt, flailing his sword. “Come back!” he roared. “Come back, you scum, and meet my blade!”

Only their fleeing footsteps answered.

“Damn your blasted eyes,” he muttered. “A bit of slaughter’s just what I need.”

A breathy sound made him turn, sword rising again, but it was only the woman, leaning against a house wall, staring at him.

The narrow street was lit only by two feeble householder lamps, so all he could see was pallor and shadows. Pale face surrounded by loose, pale hair. A dark gown that covered her neck to toe. Gown was respectable. Hair wasn’t. Couldn’t be respectable, could she, out alone at night?

He shoved his sword back into its scabbard. “You must be new to the trade, sweetheart, to dress so dully.” Damnation, where were his manners? No need to be crass because she was a whore and he was at odds with the world.

He bowed. “Catesby Burgoyne, ma’am, at your service. May I escort you to your destination?”

She shook her head, mute.

He walked closer to see her better. She tried to shrink back, but the wall was relentless.

“Please . . .” she whispered. A thin hand clutched a shawl at her chest as if it could be a breastplate.

Cate was trying to come up with reassurance when a door opened nearby and a flat Yorkshire voice asked, “Wot’s going on ’ere, then?”

The stocky man carried a candle that illuminated his face and straggling hair more than them. Even so, the woman turned away as if to hide her face.

She had a reputation to lose?

“The lady was attacked, sir,” Cate said, striving to hide all trace of gin from his voice. “The villains have fled and I’ll see her safely home.”

The man peered, but like all sane people, he didn’t go looking for trouble. Probably Cate’s aristocratic tone helped him along that path. “Good night to ye, then,” he said, and shut his door.

Cate turned back to the woman. She still stared at him, but the intervention of someone from the ordinary world seemed to have restored her voice.

“I must thank you, Mr. Burgoyne,” she said on uneven breaths. “But, please, there’s no need to delay you longer.”

A well-bred voice. Her left hand bore no ring. Where was her father or brother to permit this?

“I may not be the most perfect of gentlemen, ma’am, but I cannot leave a lady to walk the night streets alone.”

“I live very close by. . . .”

“Then this will delay me little.”

He gestured her onward. He’d commanded men in battle. Surely he could command one ordinary woman. She did move forward, stiff with wariness.

Or anger?

Now, that was interesting. He assessed her as best he could in the gloom. Hard to judge her looks, but her features seemed set in . . . resentment. Yes, that was it. Resentment. She might have reason to be wary of him, but why in Hades should she resent him? She was also dawdling, but he would not be put off.

“Your direction, ma’am?”

She quickened her steps as if she might outpace him—a thin, sour thing, all sharp angles and antipathy.

He kept up without effort. “Unwise to venture out alone so late, ma’am.”

“I merely wished to walk.”

“I have no pressing engagements. If you desire a stroll, I could escort you for miles.”

Her angles became harder, which vaguely amused him. A blessing that, on such a dismal day.

They’d arrived at the main street of the town. He saw no one else on foot, but this was also the Great North Road, lined with inns, all still open, hoping for late trade. A coach rattled by and turned through the arch to the Golden Lion, the best inn in town.

To the left lay the Queen’s Head, a mangy, ill-run place where he’d failed to drown his sorrows. He’d escaped into fresh air, but fresh March air was cold up here in Yorkshire, and the next London coach didn’t pass by until early morning. He’d need a bed for the night somewhere, but could only afford to share a room with others.

The woman was simply standing there.

“Forgotten where you live, ma’am?” he drawled.

She turned sharply to face him. “Why are you walking the streets at night?”

“A man is allowed to, ma’am. Especially one with a sword, who knows how to use it.”

“Men are allowed anything, whilst we poor women have no rights at all.”

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