A Beastly Kind of Earl

By: Mia Vincy

Chapter 1

Thea Knight had never been one to follow rules unquestioningly—or at all, if she could help it—but she always adhered to three firm rules of her own.

Namely, her Rules of Mischief.

First, mischief must be conducted only for a good cause—and certainly, Thea’s present mischief served no lesser cause than her younger sister’s happiness. For that excellent cause, she had resigned her position as a private nurse, donned a set of men’s clothing—complete with a many-caped greatcoat that weighed a stone and reeked of pigs—and journeyed halfway across England to meet Helen in this cramped room in a coaching inn in Warwickshire. Thea had even stopped laughing long enough to be laced into tight stays for the first time in three years, so she could wear Helen’s stylish gown to its best advantage, while Helen took her turn to dress as a swine-scented swain. All as a prelude to the grand mischief: While Thea was at Arabella’s house, claiming to be Miss Helen Knight, the real Helen would be eloping to Scotland with her beloved Beau Russell, thus evading the long reach of Beau Russell’s father, Viscount Ventnor.

Which led to Thea’s second Rule of Mischief: One must trick only those who were villainous, powerful, or—as was most likely the case—both.

Her conscience rested easy on that point, for Lord Ventnor practically leaped into the third category. The things he had said about the Knight family! That Helen was a “sly, scheming seductress” and “too distastefully inferior” for his heir, because Pa was a “grubby merchant” and Thea a “dreadful scandal.” Ventnor had then packed his son off to a shooting party, and sent men to follow Helen and stop her if she tried to sneak away to meet Beau. Even now, two ruffians sat in the tavern downstairs, waiting for Helen to emerge.

Thea had her own reasons for loathing Lord Ventnor, though she preferred not to think about that ball three years ago, when Percy Russell spewed his lies and Ventnor called her horrid names. To think that, of all the men in the world, Helen intended to marry Percy Russell’s elder brother! Thea shuddered at the thought of being thus connected to her enemies, though it was probably perfectly normal for the Russell family. After all, the aristocracy had been marrying and murdering each other for centuries, sometimes on the same day.

But she bit her tongue and started no quarrels, because of her third Rule: When engaging in mischief and trickery, one must always enjoy oneself. Because enjoyment led to good memories, and Thea wanted only good memories of these precious stolen minutes with her sister.

“Heavens, Thea, where did you get this hideous greatcoat?” Helen held the offending item at arm’s length, her face an exaggerated grimace of horror. “Did you buy it directly from the pigs themselves?”

“If you please!” Thea protested. “I’ll have you know that greatcoat was worn by the finest pigs in all of England.”

“They certainly have the finest smell!”

Laughing, Helen shoved her arms into the sleeves. Thea helped her arrange the lapels and capes, then stepped back to admire the result.

The greatcoat truly was a stroke of genius. Its bulk broadened Helen’s shoulders and concealed her shape, and its fragrance would deter anyone from coming too close. Hunched into the greatcoat and with a broad-brimmed clerical hat pulled down low on her face, Helen could travel without drawing attention, just as Thea had done.

“How did you survive wearing these clothes in this heat?” Helen said, taking up the clerical hat and spinning it around one finger. “I swear, after days sweltering in stagecoaches, I shall arrive at the border as roasted as a loin of pork, and Beau will stick a fork in me to see if I am done.”

“What an excellent test of true love! If Mr. Russell still wants you when you smell of stewed pig, you can be sure he will want you always.”

“If his father’s fury could not tear us apart, I daresay a smelly greatcoat will fare no better.”

How wonderful for Helen, to be so loved and wanted. Thea could hardly argue with that.

So once more, she swallowed her concerns and instead made a show of inspecting her sister, circling her slowly. Helen looked as comfortable in men’s clothes as Thea had felt, though it was a good ten years since the sisters had last dressed as boys. “Ted” and “Harry” they had been, hair cut short under their caps, dashing out after their lessons to run errands for Pa, gather news at coffeehouses and the docks, and earn a coin wherever they could. Because that was how the Knight family worked: Everyone did their part on the long, rocky road to security and wealth.

Then the year Thea turned twelve, Pa made his fortune again, and the time came for her to stop pretending to be a boy and to pretend to be a genteel lady instead.

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