Read An Improper Proposal Online

Authors: Patricia Cabot

Tags: #Romance, #Historical, #Chick-Lit

An Improper Proposal

Chapter One
Shropshire, England, June 1830

“Dammit, Payton,” Ross Dixon exploded. “I can’t tie the wretched thing. You do it.”

Payton, at too crucial a stage with her second-eldest brother’s cravat even to risk a glance at her eldest, snapped, “Wait your turn.”

“Bleeding turn.” Hudson, holding his chin up, had to look down the slopes of his high cheekbones to see his little sister as she worked on his necktie, and then he only saw the top of her head. “Wait your bleeding turn.”

“Wait your bleeding turn,” Payton said, correcting herself.

The ends of his cravat hanging limply round his neck, Ross turned away from the mirror, outraged. “Damn your eyes, Hud! Stop encouragin’ her to swear. You want her to tell the first bloke who asks her to dance tonight to wait his bleeding turn?”

“No one’s goin’ to ask Payton to dance,” Raleigh informed them, from the window seat. His cravat already tied, he’d been banished to the far side of the room by his sister with a dire warning not to stir and unloose it again. He sat in a flood of western sunlight, watching a line of carriages pull up to the front of the house. “She’s far too ugly.”

“Shut your bleeding mouth, Raleigh,” Payton advised him.

Ross ground his teeth. “Payton,” he growled. “Stop swearing. You aren’t home, and you aren’t shipboard. Remember our agreement? You can behave like a hoyden all you want while we’re at home or at sea, but in other people’s houses you’ll conduct yourself like a—”

“You know,” Hudson interrupted. “Payton’s not that ugly, Raleigh. It’s just her damned hair.” Since he had an eagle’s eye view of it, Hudson felt qualified to criticize. “When you were shavin’ all our heads this past summer, Ross, why didn’t you shave Payton’s, too? It might have helped if she’d just got rid of the whole thing, and started over.”

“Why did you,” Ross countered, irritably, “hire a cook inflicted with lice? If you hadn’t hired him on, none of us would have needed to shave our heads, and Georgiana wouldn’t be forever needling me to purchase Payton a switch.”

“A switch?” Payton wrinkled her freckled nose. “What would I want with a switch? Wear some other woman’s hair on top of mine?” She shuddered. “No, thank you. I’m perfectly happy waiting until my own grows out again.”

Hudson snorted. “You love havin’ your hair cropped short. Admit it. You’re a lazy puss, and never liked combin’ out those damned Indian braids you used to wear.”

Payton turned bright gray eyes up toward him. “Careful,” she warned, tightening the cravat teasingly. “I may not have my Indian braids anymore, but I can still sever a throat with ease.”

“Bloodthirsty wench, aren’t you?” Hudson tugged on one of the short russet-brown curls that Payton had tried—unsuccessfully, she feared—to tuck into a pair of tortoiseshell combs. “You’re going to have to learn to curb your tendency toward violence, my girl, or you’ll never get yourself a husband.”

Payton made a moue of distaste. “I fail to see what 1 need a husband for, when I already have you three telling me what to do.”

“Because eventually,” Ross said, “Hud and Raleigh are going to follow my example and take wives, leaving you all alone.”

“What do you mean, alone?” Payton glared at him over a bare shoulder. “There’s always Papa.”

“Georgiana and I are taking care of Papa,” Ross informed her. “And neither of us cares to be saddled with my spinster sister in addition.”

“If you would stop being such an ass and give me a ship of my own to command,” Payton said coolly, “you wouldn’t have to worry about being saddled with a spinster sister, let alone finding me a husband.”

Ross looked horrified. “Over my dead body,” he declared, “are you ever going to command a Dixon ship.”

“And why not? I’m twice the navigator Raleigh is, and he’s had his own ship for eight years now.” She narrowed her eyes as she glanced in Raleigh’s direction. “For all he spent most of those years hopelessly lost.”

Looking up once again from the window, Raleigh informed her kindly, “I wasn’t lost, my dear. I was exploring previously uncharted territory. There’s a difference.”

“You were lost, Raleigh. Your cargo rotted while you were floundering about, trying to find your way around the Cape of Good Hope. Only you weren’t at the Cape of Good Hope, were you?”

Raleigh waved a hand at her. “Cape Horn, Cape Hope. Those capes all look the same. Is it any wonder I mistook one for the other?”

Payton turned to glare at her eldest brother, who was fussing with his shirt collar in the mirror above the dressing table. “See? You give him a command, but not me? At least I can tell the continents apart.”

“The company,” Ross explained to his reflection, as patiently as if he were speaking to a child, “is called Dixon and Sons Shipping, Payton.” At her sharp inhalation, Ross held up a hand, and said, “And kindly don’t start arguing again that we should change the name to Dixon and Sons and Daughter. I haven’t the slightest intention of becoming the laughingstock of the shipping industry by introducing lady ship captains.”

“What’s wrong with lady ship captains?” Payton demanded tartly. “I’ve commanded your crews often enough, and quite ably, thank you very much, when you three were too drunk to hold the wheel. I don’t see why I have to be married off like some kind of half-wit when I have at least as much experience as any of you—”

“I say.” Hudson cleared his throat. “Are you going to tie my cravat, Pay, or fight with Ross?” When her hot-eyed glare landed on him, he took a quick step backward. “Never mind. Continue fighting with Ross, by all means.”

“Don’t worry, Pay,” Raleigh drawled from the window seat. “Ross’ll have no choice but to make you a lady ship captain in the end. No bloke’s ever goin’ to ask you to marry him. You’re far too ugly.”

“She ain’t ugly!” Ross exploded, finally turning away from the mirror. “Well, at least, not anymore. Not after I paid damn near a hundred quid for that bleeding dress she’s got on.”

“Don’t forget,” Hudson reminded him, “the matching slippers. And the hat and cloak.”

“Another hundred pounds.” Ross lifted a snifter of brandy he’d placed on top of the dresser, and drained it in a single quick gulp. “And for what, I’d like to know? It’s not like there’s enough material in that dress to even cover ’er decently.”

Payton glanced down at her décolletage. It was a bit daring. She didn’t have a lot to show, but what was there was on rather prominent display. When she looked up again, she saw that Hudson had followed her gaze.

“Yes, Pay,” he said. “I’d noticed you’d gotten a bosom. When did that happen?”

“I don’t know.” Payton shook her head bewilderedly. “Last summer, I think. Somewhere between New Providence and the Keys.”

“I didn’t notice you having any breasts when we were in Nassau,” Ross declared. The eldest child, it always irked him whenever Payton, the youngest, did anything without asking—such as grow, for instance.

“That’s because she wore nothing all summer but that and those dreadful striped trousers.” Raleigh, the fop of the family, heaved a delicate shudder. “Remember? Georgiana practically had to peel her out of ’em when we got back to London.”

“I wore the trousers,” Payton pointed out severely, “because I didn’t need everyone looking up my skirts every time I climbed the mizzenpost—”

“Wishful thinking,” Hudson observed.

Ignoring him, Payton continued. “And I wore the vest because I hadn’t anything to support what was going on beneath my shirt. No thanks to any of you.”

“Underthings.” Ross nodded. “I forgot. Another hundred quid. And for what, I ask you?”

The door to the bedroom opened, and Georgiana Dixon said matter-of-factly, “To get her married, of course.” Then, taking in the sight of her husband’s loose collar with a sigh, she added, “I don’t suppose it would have occurred to any of you that most men employ valets to tie their cravats, not their little sisters.”

It was Hudson’s turn to shudder. “I don’t want some bloke touching me, let alone my clothes.”

“Really, Georgiana.” Ross, Payton had noticed, was not quite as patient with his new wife as he’d been but a few months earlier. After all, then he’d only been courting her. Now that they were safely married, and she couldn’t very well escape, he made it quite clear that the newfangled ideas she’d brought with her from London were no longer going to be tolerated. “There’s something … well, unnatural about a man helping another man to dress. That’s women’s work.”

Georgiana nodded. She’d grown, Payton observed, quite used to the backward logic frequently employed by the family into which she’d married.

“I see,” she said. “And so poor Payton’s got to dress all of you before you’ll let her see to herself.” Tut-tutting, she went to Payton’s side, and began to remove her hair combs. “You three ought to be ashamed of yourselves,” Georgiana chastised. “For heaven’s sake, learn to tie your own cravats. I’ve noticed Captain Drake can do it. There’s no reason any of you can’t. You’re not feeble.”

“Oh, well, Captain Drake” Hudson said, rolling his eyes.

“Captain Drake can do anything,” mimicked Raleigh in a high-pitched voice, and although it was not clear who precisely he was mimicking, Payton shot him a warning look. She had a sneaking suspicion he was imi ta ting her, in which case, she’d have to give him a taste of her fist, first chance she got.

“I met the captain just now in the hallway.” Using the hair combs, Georgiana began working the tangles from Payton’s scandalously short curls. If she applied them at just the right angle, Georgiana had found that she could almost create the illusion that Payton’s hair was longer than jaw-length, which, in actual truth, it was not. “And he looked right presentable. A good deal more presentable than you looked, Ross, the night before we were married.”

“Right,” Hudson said, with a laugh. “But Ross had. I believe, consumed most of a bottle of rum that night, so it’s understandable he mightn’t have looked his best—”

“I understand,” Georgiana continued, as if Hudson had not interrupted, “that Captain Drake keeps no valet, so I can only assume that he, at least, is capable of dressing himself.”

“Or Miss Whitby helped him,” Raleigh quipped .

Payton was so startled that she jumped, yanking her hair out of Georgiana’s reach as she whirled around to face her brother. “She did not!” she declared.

But even as she said it, and with all the contempt she could summon, a part of her was wondering whether or not it might be true. Unfortunately, that doubt must have sounded in her voice, since Georgiana said, shooting Raleigh a disapproving look, “Of course not. Miss Whitby did no such thing. Really, Raleigh, why must you provoke your sister so?”

Payton felt her cheeks growing hot, and it was not, she well knew, because the room faced west, and the last rays of the setting sun were slanting straight through the ten-foot-high window casements.

“It doesn’t,” she said, moving quickly back to within her sister-in-law’s reach. “Provoke me, I mean. I certainly don’t care who dresses Captain Drake. He could have an entire seraglio of women to dress him, for all I care.”

Georgiana frowned and went back to work with the hair combs. After three months of marriage, Georgiana was already quite used to the risqué talk that passed between her husband and his brothers—and sometimes even their sister—as humor. She could only do her best to discourage such talk by ignoring it, or, like now, taking it calmly.

“Well, whoever dressed him,” she said, “it wasn’t Miss Whitby. I saw her myself downstairs not half an hour ago. She was with your father. He was showing her the latest addition to his collection.”

All four Dixon siblings groaned. Sir Henry Dixon had been a very successful businessman in his day, the founder of Dixon and Sons, a merchant shipping company that had earned him a tidy fortune. But since the death of his beloved wife following Payton’s birth, he’d lost a good deal of interest in his business, and had finally turned the entire operation over to his sons. Now Sir Henry spent most of his time reminiscing about his dead wife and collecting pirate memorabilia. The pride of his life was a collection of musket-balls he’d purchased in Nassau, musket-balls said to have been discharged from pistols belonging to various pirate captains, Blackbeard among them. It was a collection he carried everywhere with him, and would show to anyone who had the bad luck to express the slightest interest in it.

Payton could not help but feel a fierce satisfaction that the odious Miss Whitby should have fallen into her father’s trap. Now she’d be spending the better part of an hour listening to Sir Henry drone on about calibers and the chemical composition of lead, something Payton would only wish upon her worst enemy. Miss Whitby being that enemy, she felt quite happy suddenly.

“And what,” Payton asked her sister-in-law, with deceptive nonchalance,” is Miss Whitby wearing this evening?”

“Oh, la,” Georgiana said. “A frothy blue thing, with pink rosettes. I can’t imagine where she got it. It’s much too young for her, if you ask me. And with that red hair of hers, pink is not the thing.” Payton was small for her age, and Georgiana had to lean down to whisper, ” Your dress is much prettier.”

Despite Georgiana’s attempt at tact, her husband overheard. “I should certainly hope Payton’s is prettier, after what I paid for it,” he bellowed.

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