Abandoned to the Prodigal - Season of Scandal, Book 1
Season of Scandal - Can a Regency lady recover from ruin?
Four innocent young ladies-in-waiting to the Princess of Wales spend the night sheltering from a wild party in her residence – only to discover in the morning that Her Highness was never there. And the news is already out.
The ladies flee the scene to fight as best they can for their lost reputations. And to confront the man who tricked them.
Who knew that love could be fun?
Ruined and abandoned by her betrothed, Lady Juliet has no choice but to take the stagecoach home to her family in Yorkshire. Fortunately, she is protected on the journey by a handsome and amusing self-styled “wastrel”.
Daniel Stewart - together with his enormous, unruly mongrel dog - is reluctantly answering a summons to his grandfather’s deathbed. But instead of the prodigal’s traditional fatted calf, he is presented with the miserly baron’s temper and a parcel of resentful relatives. Juliet faces recrimination and isolation in her own home.
It isn’t surprising that Dan and Juliet seek solace in secret meetings to cheer each other up. Neither expects to fall in love.
But is the unconventional Dan the solution to Juliet’s problems? Or just an added complication? For her powerful father seeks to rehabilitate her reputation through marriage, either to her faithless ex-betrothed or to the man who caused her ruin in the first place.
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In the early morning sunlight, two young ladies hurried across Grosvenor Square. They kept their heads down and their faces hidden as best they could.
At the corner of South Audley Street, they paused. The younger, Lady Juliet Lilbourne, glanced up for the briefest moment and surreptitiously gripped her companion’s hand.
“Good luck,” she murmured.
“And you. Take care, Juliet.”
Their hands parted, and Juliet walked into South Audley Street. In spite of her hurry to be safe indoors, her feet seemed to drag. An ominous weight seemed to crush her whole being.
About a quarter of the way down the street, she dared to look up again. At the house of her betrothed’s parents, a maid was scrubbing the front step, calling cheerfully to the girl performing the same service at the house next door. Keeping her face turned away from the neighbor’s servant, Juliet took the two steps to the open front door.
“Oh, good morning, my lady,” the maid exclaimed, pulling her bucket out of the way. “I didn’t hear the carriage.”
“Good morning, Sally,” Juliet murmured hastily and walked into the hall.
From a room upstairs, she could hear the unmistakable tones of Lady Alford, her betrothed’s mother. She sounded agitated, as she often was, though Juliet could not make out the words. A low, soothing male voice attempted to calm her. From this distance Juliet couldn’t tell if it was Lord Alford or his son. Though it was ridiculously early for any of them to be up and about.
As she moved toward the stairs, regal footsteps approached from the back of the house.
Juliet, remembering she still carried her valise, stopped and set it down.
“Good morning,” the dignified butler, Johnson, intoned, treading across the hall. “We were not expecting your ladyship.”
“No, my plans have suddenly changed. Could you ask Lady Alford to—”
“Her ladyship,” Johnson interrupted, “is not at home.”
Juliet blinked. She had just heard her ladyship’s voice and was about to point out Johnson’s mistake. And then the truth struck her like a blow.
She was the Earl of Cosland’s daughter, beautiful, courted, and popular. No one had ever refused to receive her.
Outraged, she held the butler’s relentless gaze. “When will her ladyship return?”
“I could not say, madam.”
“Guess,” Juliet commanded.
Only by the faintest twitch did Johnson betray emotion. It looked like irritation. “If I were to guess, I would say not today.”
“But that is ridiculous!” She had nowhere else to go. Her parents were at their Yorkshire estate. She had been staying with Lady Alford, who had always been most kind and welcoming. And then she had been summoned unexpectedly to her duty as lady-in-waiting to the Princess of Wales. There was only one possible reason that things could have changed so drastically between yesterday evening and this morning.
Lady Alford knew.
And yet, how could she have learned so quickly?
Panic surged. Lady Alford had been her best, her only hope to nip this scandal in the bud.
“Johnson, I need to see her ladyship,” she said intensely.
“Perhaps if you were to write first.”
From nowhere, a footman had appeared and picked up her valise. He pretended not to see her involuntary grab for it and walked with it toward the front door.
They are throwing me out! Oh, dear God, what do I do now?
In desperation, she threw her shoulders back and glared at Johnson. “Bring Mr. Catesby to me this instant, or I promise you, I shall scream so loudly it will wake the entire street. Then, you may explain that to your noble neighbors.”
Johnson’s eye twitched again.
“You have twenty seconds,” Juliet said.
With the gesture of one finger, Johnson halted the footman’s progress and sent him scurrying for the stairs instead. Juliet stepped forward, picked up the valise, and walked into the reception room.
“Thirteen seconds,” she observed mildly.
But she was shaking with mortification. To be forced to threaten a kind hostess in such a vulgar way! But equally, to be condemned, unheard, as she was being… She had never imagined Lady Alford would treat her in such a way. But hopefully, Jeremy, Mr. Catesby, would be able to reach her when she had calmed down.
She wasn’t truly counting and had no idea what she would do if she was simply left cooling her heels for hours in this bare, soulless room. But she did hear swift footsteps on the stairs, then hurrying across the hall. Jeremy strode into the room, his lips tight.
He didn’t close the door, and when she started toward him instinctively, he actually raised his hand as though to ward her off.
“What do you want, Juliet?” he asked coldly.
She halted as though she had been slapped. “Want? Why are you treating me this way? What have you heard?”
Only then did she see the newspaper in his hands. It wasn’t The Morning Post or the Gazette. He dropped it with some disgust on the table between them.
Juliet stepped up to it, reached past the vase of fresh flowers, which stood at the center of the table, and lifted the newspaper.
It seemed to be one of the scandal sheets she never read and never wished to. The lurid headline Orgy in C. Place caught her eye at once. And below it, words and phrases leapt from the page.
Undaunted by the absence of either propriety or their royal mistress… Lady M.W., Lady J.L., Miss D.S. and Miss H.C. lurk in the midst of the night’s debauchery, where also were present vast quantities of finest wines and brandies… and several of London’s most prominent rakes.
“Oh, dear God,” Juliet whispered, her hand flying to her cheek while the newspaper dropped back onto the table.
“Dear God, indeed,” Jeremy said grimly. “What were you thinking of?”
“Thinking of?” Juliet repeated, bewildered. “Of keeping out of the way, yet protecting Her Highness… Jeremy, you cannot believe this vile fustian? It is all lies!”
“Then you were not at Connaught Place?” he snapped. “You certainly left here with every intention of going there. Or so you told my mother!”
“Well, yes, I did, but—”
“Then you deny any such party took place?” he said with contempt. “That any of these people were present?”
Juliet whitened. “I… No, I cannot deny they were there, but you don’t understand!”
“No, I don’t,” he agreed, swiping up the newspaper with one hand. “I’m glad I don’t. But I’m sure you will understand that any promises between us are broken, and that our engagement is therefore at an end. Goodbye. Johnson will see your ladyship out.”
Her ears seemed to sing with the impossibility of this situation. The whole world was crashing in on her.
“Jeremy, you can’t!” she pleaded. “You cannot so condemn me—”
“You are condemned out of your own mouth,” he said shortly. “I would be grateful if you did not visit my mother again. She is no longer at home to you.”
A quick spurt of anger was all that prevented her curling up on the floor. “Do you imagine my father will not be offended by your treating me in such a way?”
“That is exactly what I imagine. I’m afraid it’s you who has offended him, your entire family, and mine. Don’t make me call for footmen to speed your departure.”
It was an empty threat. Probably. But that he would make it, shriveled her to the bone. “But…what will I do?” she said, thinking aloud. “Where can I go?”
“Home. Go to Yorkshire.”
“On the ten guineas I have in my purse?”
He hesitated, then delved inside his well-made coat, and retrieved a large banknote which he held out to her. “Goodbye, Juliet,” he said firmly.
A fresh spurt of anger saved her once more, bringing with it a moment’s pride that was probably foolish but all she had to counter the pain of his massive betrayal.
She stared at the money in his hand, then slowly raised her gaze to his. “The trouble with you, Jeremy, is that beneath your smart coat and your expectations, you are simply not a gentleman.”
She picked up her valise and walked past him and out the door, her head held high. As she crossed the hall, Johnson and the footman watched her go. A porter opened and closed the front door behind her, leaving her staring at the open-mouthed maid who had finished scrubbing the steps and stood gawping at her, brush in one hand and bucket in the other.
Juliet would have liked to carry on, stalking up South Audley Street with purpose. But she had no purpose. She thought briefly about going to Lady Meg in Grosvenor Square, but Meg’s father the Duke would not welcome her either. And Meg would have her own troubles if her family had read that disgusting rag which had clearly roused the entire Alford household at such an unprecedented hour.
“Sally,” she said slowly, “where would one find a mail coach or even a stagecoach to Yorkshire?”
“The Swan with Two Necks in Cheapside?” Sally said doubtfully. “Or maybe the Golden Cross—the inn at Charing Cross—would be best.”
“You are probably right.” With a friendly nod, Juliet walked down the steps and set off along the road.
Juliet had never taken a public conveyance in her life and had no real idea how to go about it. And by the time she had walked to Charing Cross and found the Golden Cross Inn, she felt unaccustomedly exhausted. Her legs and feet felt numb, and she wanted to cry.
It had never entered her head that Jeremey would not stand by her, would not believe her, would not even listen to her. He had simply dropped her like a burning coal, without a second thought. This man she had meant to marry and live with for the rest of her life. The man who had made her such exquisite speeches of devotion.
What utter lies! And now my heart is broken along with the rest of my life…
The inn was heaving with people and vehicles. Close by, people were bundling into a coach laden with luggage. Others were climbing up on to the outside seats and onto the roof. Everyone around the yard seemed to be in a hurry, striding about purposefully, bearing boxes and trunks, leading horses, harnessing carts, shouting instructions or ribald remarks she didn’t understand. Delicious cooking smells drifting out of the inn made her stomach rumble.
In the midst of the bustle sat a sleek, black cat, elegantly cleaning itself. Everyone, even men carrying heavy loads, who probably couldn’t even see the animal properly, walked around it. Oblivious, the cat carried on washing its face.
On what appeared to the taproom step, a man sat eating a pie with some gusto, until Juliet approached, when he leapt to his feet. The pie vanished into the pocket of his long coat, and he snatched off his slightly greasy-looking hat.
“Help you, ma’am? Head porter at your service. Let me carry your bag.”
“Thank you,” Juliet replied gratefully. “I wish to go to York, or at least as close to Kidfield as I can. Is there a coach today?”
The porter scratched his head, “No room on that one,” he said, nodding toward the laden coach which was about to leave. “It’s the mail. But there may be space on the later stagecoach. It’s slower but does stop at Kidfield.”
“Oh, that would be ideal,” Juliet said in relief. “What time would that be?”
“Eleven o’clock. Let me see what I can—”
A sudden bark seemed to split Juliet’s ears, cutting the porter off. In the same instant, a huge, hairy creature bounded from nowhere across her line of vision, directly at the black cat she’d noticed earlier. People scattered in all directions, dropping loads and bumping into each other.
With an angry squeal, the cat sprang up and leapt without apparent hurry onto the balcony wall on the first floor. There it resumed its ablutions while the hairy creature, who appeared to be an extremely large dog, tried to jump after it, landing instead on the porter who staggered under the sudden weight.
“Get away, you cur!” he growled, roughly shoving the animal off.
The dog, however, wagged its tail, immediately losing interest in the cat in favor of the porter’s coat pocket. The porter clapped his hand over it, protecting his half-eaten pie from the intrusive great snout.
“Get away!” the porter yelled, shoving the dog’s head with unnecessary force. He even raised his boot and kicked out, catching the dog a glancing blow on the ribs.
Juliet had seen enough. Barging past the man, she stood in front of the now-wary dog, who was clearly not willing to give up on his pie prospects just yet.
“What do you think you’re doing?” she raged. “How dare you hurt your poor dog! If you just fed him…”
“He ain’t my dog,” the porter said aggressively. “What would I want with a great beast like that eating me out of house and home? And if he don’t want to be kicked, he should stay out of my pockets!”
“Brute!” Juliet exclaimed. Even then, she was aware her anger was not entirely on behalf of the dog, who didn’t seem unduly upset by his treatment. The rest was her own emotion boiling to the surface.
The porter started toward her, clearly trying to intimidate her. Fury spat from his eyes and his lips twisted. She glared back, while the dog stuck his hairy head under her hand and growled low in his throat.
The porter made a threatening gesture with his raised boot, presumably aimed at the dog, although it was unlikely he could kick it without hurting Juliet, too.
“Gun! Here, boy!” came a commanding voice, and a tall young man pushed through the crowd that had gathered to watch the confrontation. The dog, who was clearly easily distracted, immediately abandoned Juliet and his quarrel with the porter and instead hurled himself at the young man, jumping up to lick his face.
The man grinned and pushed him off. “Down, Gun,” he ordered with not very convincing severity, before he turned a scowling face to the porter. “What’s going on? You know perfectly well he’s harmless.”
“Don’t you worry, sir,” someone in the crowd said, clearly entertained. “The young lady’s already told him off for kicking the beast.”
The young man’s gaze flickered to Juliet and away, before it swept back for a longer look. Strangely restless dark eyes fixed on hers and held. For a moment, she had to remind herself to breathe, for despite his youth and somewhat bedraggled appearance, he was extraordinarily good looking. More than that, there was something imposing about him.
He nodded curtly and swung back to the porter. “I’ll thank you to keep your feet to yourself,” he snapped, bending to run his hands over the dog’s fur.
“You keep your dog to yourself, sir, and my feet will stay on the ground,” the porter said insolently, and turned back to Juliet. “Kidfield, for madam. At eleven.” The crowd, seeing the fun had finished, began to disperse. The porter stared into her eyes and held out his hand. “Fifteen guineas.”
Juliet flushed to the roots of her hair. “B-but I only have ten,” she stammered, seeing even this last plan collapsing around her ears.
“You could have an outside seat,” the porter said grudgingly.
“She could have a seat there and back for ten,” the young stranger interrupted from behind them. He strolled forward, the dog at his heels. “And an inside seat at that.”
“Not with extras,” the porter said defensively. “I presume the lady wants to eat and have her bag taken care of.”
He made an angry grab for her valise once more.
But the stranger was quicker. “The lady will keep her bags for now. And she will pay you when you bring back the correct ticket.”
With a muttered curse, the porter strode away.
With no real idea what to do next, Juliet turned her attention to the dog, who had pushed his head under her hand and looked up at her, wagging his tail. She smiled just a little tremulously and stroked him, her fingers curling convulsively in his fur. Suddenly, she wanted to cry again.
“My thanks for looking after him,” the young man said. “I hope he hasn’t been annoying you, too.”
She glanced quickly up at him. Through her slightly blurred vision, he looked tall, dark, and very lean, his dress gentlemanly, but somewhat worn, his expression amiable now that the porter had gone. His stance, though casual to a fault, seemed quite unthreatening.
“Not in the least,” she replied. “That horrid porter kicked him, only for sniffing at his pockets. I hope he isn’t hurt.”
“No, he’s fine as far as I can see. He learned self-preservation before I ever knew him. Unfortunately, he’s a bit of a scavenger. He has eaten this morning, but I suppose old habits die hard. Do you have no friends with you, ma’am? Are you truly traveling alone?”
Juliet tried to look haughty. “I am, sir.”
He shrugged. “Fair enough.”
By then the porter was striding back toward her. With ill grace, he held out his grubby hand with her ticket and waited for payment. Juliet opened her purse and placed the coins in his palm. His hand remained where it was, clearly expecting more.
“Really?” her new friend said softly, and with another muttered curse, the porter stormed off.
“He isn’t really the head porter at all, is he?” Juliet asked ruefully. “Is he even a porter?”
“Unofficially perhaps, but either way, I don’t imagine he’ll last long.” With a quick grin, he tipped his hat, clearly about to walk away.
“Thank you, sir,” she said hastily. “I’m very grateful to you. I have never used the stagecoach before.”
The corners of his eyes creased as though he were amused. “I didn’t imagine you had.”
“Does everyone try and fleece you like that?”
“Oh, no. In fact, he probably wouldn’t have if you hadn’t annoyed him by scolding him over Gun. For that defense alone, I’m in your debt, and very glad to have been of any assistance.” He bowed, snapped his fingers to the dog, and strolled away. The dog trotted at his heels, leaving Juliet to her unsatisfied curiosity over both of them.
After a moment, she turned away and wondered if she dared go into the inn to find a safe place to wait for the coach. She walked the length of the building, then settled on a bench outside to watch the world come and go.
She wished she was less churned up, angry, and frightened, so that she could appreciate the novelty. But this was not the kind of traveling she’d had in mind when she entered the princess’s house in Connaught Place yesterday evening. And she had never imagined being alone.