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For Love of the Duke

By:Christi Caldwell

the next.

Anne laughed. She took Katherine’s hand and raised it to her chest. “See, Kat, why there is nothing to be afraid of!” She paused, forcing Katherine to a halt and perused the barbers’, butchers’, and bakers’ tents along the frozen waterway.

There had to be very nearly thirty tents, perhaps more. Ever the optimist, however, Anne looked over at Katherine with a wide grin. “Come along then. We’ll never find the pendant standing here.”

They weaved their way in between the couples skating upon the ice, onward toward the boisterous vendors loudly peddling their wares.

“Would ye ladies care for an ale?” a young merchant called out to them. He held out two tankards of ale, a wide-gap toothed grin on his pockmarked face.

“No, thank you,” Katherine murmured automatically.

Her sister shot her a reproachful look. “You are so very rude, Katherine.”

Katherine blinked. “I am not rude.”

“Well pompous, then.” Anne gestured to the young man in his frayed trousers, who stood at the entrance of his vibrant crimson tent. “That young man is merely trying to earn his livelihood, and you’d condescend him.”

“I am not condescending him.” A defensive note threaded Katherine’s words.

“Just because he isn’t as neatly put together, as the other vendors.”

The young man seemed to hear Anne’s not so discreetly spoken words, for he cocked his head, and his smile dipped into a frown.

Katherine reached into her reticule and withdrew several coins. “Here, sir. Two ales, please,” she said, with a glare for Anne. She most certainly had not been condescending the young man, and she most certainly was not rude or pompous. She merely recognized the folly of two, unchaperoned young ladies purchasing spirits of any sort, in the very public event.

The peddler’s smile reappeared and he proceeded to hand them each a tankard.

“ ’Ere ye are, m’ladies.”

Katherine handed the coins off to the man, and accepted her ale. As she cautiously picked her way over the ice, trailing after her excited sister’s much more hurried movements, she sipped her ale. She grimaced at the bitter taste of the brew upon her tongue, but then tried another. And another. And by the fourth, it really wasn’t all that bitter, but rather a tad sweet, and a good-deal too delicious.

Anne paused alongside a purple tent lined with black stripes. “I will speak to this vendor.” She hesitated, chewing at her lower lip.

Oh, dear. Katherine recognized her sister’s distracted movement.

“We shall never manage to speak to all the merchants before dark falls.”

The first bells of warning rang in Katherine’s head.

“It would be much wiser if…”

The ringing grew louder.

“We speak to different peddlers.”

Katherine took another sip, and frowned as she realized her tankard was empty.

“Katherine?”

Her head shot up, as she pondered her sister. What had Anne said? Katherine knew there had been a bad idea there, but the warmth that filled her from the ale had also warmed her resolve and stolen her ability to think with the clarity she usually prided herself upon. “Er, yes, fabulous idea,” she said, instead.

Anne’s eyes widened, and then her smile grew. “Lovely!” She stuck her finger toward a nearby sapphire blue tent. “Off you go, then.”

Without waiting to see if Katherine followed her succinct instructions, Anne turned around and slipped inside the purple tent lined with black stripes.

Katherine alternated her stare between the tent her sister had disappeared into and the sapphire blue tent. She sighed. Yes, all bad ideas began with her sister. Dear, fanciful Anne, she’d somehow retained all traces of innocence. At nineteen, Anne still possessed girlish hopes and silly dreams. She’d somehow remained untouched by their father’s sins…sins that had left their family destitute, and forced their eldest sister, Aldora to sacrifice herself at the marital altar to save their family. Granted, Aldora had ultimately found love. But that was neither here, nor there…men were fickle, unreliable, inconstant creatures not to be trusted. Unfortunately, her romantic of a sister was only drawn by the drivel written about on the pages of her gothic novels.

A snowflake fell and settled upon her nose. Katherine looked up into the thick grey-white winter sky at the sea of flakes that danced a path down onto the frozen river.

Except, just then, with the warmth of the ale and the crisp cleanliness of the holiday air, an uncharacteristic lightness filled her spirit.

Suddenly, the ice, which she’d earlier feared, seemed like a very magical gift.

Katherine made her way back to the vendor who’d sold them the tankard of ale. She returned the empty glass over and waved off his offer for a second.

She turned to leave…and walked into a solid, unyielding wall.

Whoosh. All the air left her lungs, and she and teetered unsteadily upon her feet. The jolting movement displaced the bonnet atop her head. Her breath fanned little wisps of white into the cool air as she righted herself. When she regained control of her breath she blinked several times, and looked up at the gentleman who’d plowed into her.

A towering, broad bear of a man, he paused to glare down his slightly crooked Roman nose at her. His black, disdainful look dared her to speak.

So she did. Katherine tossed her head back. “Pardon me.”

The pompous prig jerked his attention forward and without so much as a murmured apology, continued on his way. The gentleman at his right, a lean, lithe fellow offered her a sheepish smile. His eyes expressed the other man’s apology.

Katherine gave a curt nod and turned on her heel, determined not to let the foul fiend spoil the lovely day that portended the coming of Christmas.

Mindful of the fact that she and Anne flouted propriety by being out, unchaperoned, Katherine tugged her hideous brown velvet bonnet down more around her eyes. She adjusted her green muslin cloak closer and peeked about.

But those pa

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