Married to the Rogue - Season of Scandal, Book 3
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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.
Free to follow her heart…just not to her husband!
Deborah needs a husband to protect her from the scandal breaking over her head; Christopher Halland, a radical and ambitious member of parliament, needs a wife to get at his fortune and Gosmere Hall. It is the perfect marriage of convenience. Or is it?
She should have been warned off by the fury in his eyes on their first encounter when he almost rode over her. And by the whispered rumors of his women and loose living. Instead, she thrives as the lady of Gosmere Hall and her calm soothes her volatile husband throughout quarrels with his grandfather, and even when his black-sheep cousin, accused of murder, turns up wounded in the cellar.
However, falling in love was not part of their agreement – at least not with each other - and they have to overcome many misunderstandings before happiness is within their reach.
Only then, her scandal rears its ugly head once more, and the arrival of the reptilian Lord Barden threatens to ruin everything, and even take Deborah’s life.
Deborah stepped down from the chaise with a flood of relief. The village of Coggleton had never been so welcome a sight. She paid the post boy with almost the last of her money and walked up the path to the house her mother insisted on calling the cottage.
The front door flew open before she reached it, and her siblings spilled out, seeming to drag their mother along in their midst, like a whirlwind collecting debris.
“Oh, my goodness, Deb, what is amiss?” her mother demanded. “Why are you home so soon? Please tell me Her Highness did not dismiss you!”
“Of course not,” Deborah said hurriedly, hugging her sisters and brothers. “At least, not exactly. Shall we go inside?”
Absorbing Deborah and her bag, the whirlwind swept back inside and Deborah soon found herself sitting in the parlor, divested of cloak and hat while her family clustered about her in expectation.
Her mother and Lucy, her younger sister nearest in age at nineteen summers, stood together by the mantelpiece, radiating an excitement that told her there was more news. She hoped it was better than hers.
“We just had a letter from your grandmother this morning,” her mother exclaimed. “Saying you had been called to the princess. We assumed you were going abroad with her as you hoped.”
“She went without me,” Deborah said, gazing at her hands and speaking in a low, deliberately calm voice. “The summons was a mistake. Three other ladies and I, all young and unmarried, arrived around the same time to find, as we thought, that the princess was entertaining guests. She wasn’t. No one had invited them, but there they were. We discovered in the morning that Her Highness had left the day before, and that we had spent the night unchaperoned in the house.” She swallowed and raised her eyes to her mother’s shocked face. “While a party of…questionable taste raged below us.”
“Oh Deborah!” Lucy wailed.
“Hush, hush.” Her mother waved this aside, staring hard at Deborah. “You were part of this? In the midst of such a…”
“No, of course not. We hid in our own sitting room next to the princess’s chambers.”
Her mother frowned. “What was the point of that when she wasn’t there? Why did you not simply leave again? Go back to your grandmother?”
“We thought she was in her bedchamber,” Deborah said flatly.
“Not at her own party?” her brother Giles exclaimed. “Sounds a bit shabby to me.”
“We thought she was saying private farewells to a friend—friends—before leaving the country,” Deborah said diplomatically, though judging by her mother’s expression of outrage, she understood perfectly. “But obviously, we were wrong, for she had already left London.”
“Oh, why did I let you take such a place with that woman?” her mother wailed.
“Because it provided a little prestige and money enough to keep the house for a little longer,” Deborah said tiredly. “But I doubt there will be any more money now.”
“Still, it is not so bad,” Lucy said encouragingly. “After all, we shouldn’t need the money now, and surely no one saw you there, Deb, if you were shut up away from everyone else?”
Deborah glanced from her to her mother. “I don’t know. We might have been seen, making occasional forays to look for the princess or someone else with authority to throw out the guests. It’s probable the guests were in no state to recognize us that night, though someone might have seen us leave in the morning.”
Her mother and Lucy stared at her in horror. The younger children, clearly not understanding what the fuss was about, began to lose interest and squabble over some plan for the afternoon.
“You mean you are ruined,” Lucy said in horror. “Oh Deborah, how could you have let this happen now?”
“I don’t seem to have had much to do with it,” Deborah replied wearily. “But all is not yet lost. Lady Juliet and Lady Meg were also there, and it’s possible their families will be able to quash any rumors that might arise.”
“Well, let us hope so, Deb!” Lucy exclaimed. “For otherwise you will have destroyed everything!”
Deborah met her sister’s turbulent gaze. “Hardly everything. What in particular do you mean?”
“We have every reason to hope,” her mother answered, “that Lucy is about to receive an offer from Sir Edmund Letchworth.”
Deborah’s eyes widened. “But that would be wonderful! Providing you like him, Lucy?”
“There will be no point in my liking him if he hears about you,” Lucy muttered. “His family would never permit it then.”
“Nonsense, if he is more than one-and-twenty, he may judge for himself in such matters,” Deborah said firmly. “You need only explain the truth to him and if he is worthy of you, he will not allow it to make any difference.”
“You don’t really live much in the real world, do you, Deb?” Lucy flounced to the door, although the drama of her exit was spoiled by the arrival of Bertha the maid with a tea tray. Lucy was obliged to step aside, before continuing on her way.
The tea was duly poured and the scones snatched by Deborah’s starving siblings who were all trying to tell her their news at once. It was some time before she could ask her mother, “How serious is this matter of Lucy’s imminent engagement?”
“Almost secure,” her mother replied ruefully. “The Letchworths arrived at Coggleton House last month, for the first time in several years, apparently. Certainly they have not been in residence since we came to the area. They held a ball for the all the neighboring gentle folk. Needless to say, Sir Edmund was captivated by our Lucy and has called on us several times since. She has been riding with him and his sister, and we have been to dinner at the House. We were the only guests! Apart from Mr. Halland who was visiting his grandfather—the Earl of Hawfield, you know—at Gosmere Hall.”
Bewildered by this aside, Deborah drew her parent back to the matter in hand. “Are his affections engaged, do you think? Are Lucy’s?”
“Well, who would not want to be Lady Letchworth? He is a most agreeable and unassuming young man, most attentive and polite and I do believe his interest is quite fixed on Lucy. So you do see why this…trouble of yours has come at precisely the wrong moment? We truly don’t want to scare him away.”
“If he can be so scared away, he isn’t worth having,” Deborah said staunchly.
“Tell that to your sister,” her mother retorted. “In fact, repeat it to yourself next quarter day when the rent is due. For there will be no more money from your position and there is precious little left in the coffers. To be frank, Deb, this is not merely a matter of love, it is a necessity.”
Stricken, Deborah gazed helplessly at her mother. She had known things would be tight but she hadn’t appreciated just how close to the precipice they stood. One way or another, it seemed, ruin awaited them all.
Having been shut up in stuffy coaches for almost a day and a half, Deborah resolved to go for a walk with her younger siblings that afternoon.
“But you can’t!” Lucy exclaimed. “I was going to walk this afternoon!”
Deborah blinked. “I wasn’t excluding you.”
“She’s planning to run into Sir Edmund,” their sister Lizzie giggled.
“Then it’s as well I will be there to chaperone you,” Deborah said.
“But he can’t meet you, Deb,” Lucy stated. “You know that!”
Deborah stared at her, absorbing the inevitable guilt. “Then I shall walk in the other direction. Do you want to take the children or shall I?”
“Oh, both of you are being silly,” their mother declared. “We shall all go together. We must never appear ashamed of Deborah or it will merely confirm rumor. Besides, no one will know anything about this scandal. Probably.”
“The Letchworths don’t even know her name,” Lucy said grimly. “And I would rather keep it that way.”
“Give her another name,” Giles suggested. “Miss Tumblebumpkin.”
“Miss Raspberry!” Lizzie, the youngest, cried.
“Miss Lunkhead,” Stephen contributed.
“It might fit,” Deborah said tartly, “but I refuse that one in public.”
“Miss Kneesandtoes,” Giles said.
They were still coming up with increasingly bizarre names, most of which made Deborah laugh and even cracked a smile in Lucy’s anxious face, as they left the house and walked through the village.
Lucy clearly had a preferred direction, and set off along the path that led, eventually, to Coggleton House.
“What is he like?” Deborah asked her, hoping to heal some of the rift between them. “Is he very handsome and clever?”
“Not really,” Lucy replied. “But he is quite…serious. A most moral and upright gentleman.”
“Well, that is good,” Deborah said, trying to summon enthusiasm for this description of her sister’s favored suitor.
“Not in the present circumstances,” Lucy said grimly, and walked faster.
Deborah, sighing, made no effort to catch up. Instead, she asked the children what they thought of Sir Edmund.
“Apart from mooning over Lucy, he’s not so bad,” Giles said. “He always acknowledges us, which every adult doesn’t always trouble to.”
“And he plays spillikins quite well,” Lizzie offered.
“Then he has been to the cottage?” Deborah asked in surprise.
“Several times. Usually with his sister, but once by himself,” replied Stephen, the most observant and practical of her siblings.
“That was when he played spillikins,” Lizzie agreed. “Look, do you think that is him, now?”
Giles grinned. “Just happening to be on this path at this time.”
A few yards ahead, just past where the path to Coggleton House crossed with the road to Gosmere, Lucy had stopped to see to the laces of her boot—or was pretending to do so. Beyond her, a man came striding alone along the path.
Deborah, curious to meet the gentleman on whom all their fortunes now depended, walked quicker, before she remembered she was persona non grata. Unsure what to do, she lingered at the crossroads, observing as the man hurried closer, sweeping off his hat.
He bowed, smiling, politely greeting their mother first. “Mrs. Shelby, what a pleasant surprise. It is a lovely day for a walk, is it not? How do you do, Miss Shelby? Might I be of assistance?”
From his smile, from the glow in his eyes when he gazed upon Lucy, Deborah guessed the young man was indeed smitten. Which was a relief.
And Lucy was definitely flirting as she smiled up at him. “Oh, no thank you, sir. I just needed to retie the lace.”
What Deborah couldn’t decide was whether her sister’s blush was from genuine feeling. Either way, she was glad to see the young man speak to the children, too. Even Lizzie, who’d remained with Deborah, stepped closer.
At the same time, the thunder of galloping hooves penetrated Deborah’s distracted observation. The noise rushed on her, so quickly that for an instant she couldn’t even judge its direction. Then she seized Lizzie and flattened them both against the hedge. She uttered an inarticulate cry of warning to those ahead, just as a horse and rider exploded from the Gosmere road, clearly meaning to jump the hedge at exactly where Deborah and Lizzie stood.
Deborah stumbled, trying to push Lizzie further away. The rider wrenched his horse’s head around and pulled up so sharply that the animal reared, whinnying wildly as it pawed the air. The hooves were still terrifying close to her, especially if the rider had lost control of the horse, which could lash out in any direction.
Somehow the rider clung on. Deborah could even hear his voice murmuring soothing words that actually seemed to work, for when the horse’s front hooves finally hit the ground, it merely danced a little and snorted rather than kicking, bolting or rearing up again.
The rider’s face was at complete odds with his gentle voice. Deborah had never seen anyone so utterly furious. His mouth was a thin, hard line, his wild eyes stormy beneath black, scowling brows.
Those rage-filled eyes fixed on Deborah, seeming to pin her to the hedge. She wondered wildly what she had done wrong.
“Are you hurt?” he asked curtly.
Apparently, his rage was not directed at her. Dumbly, Deborah shook her head.
“My apologies,” he threw at her. “for riding like a maniac.”
Only then did he turn his attention to those only a few yards further along the road. They were staring open-mouthed, as though not quite sure what had just happened.
“Good God, Halland, what has got you into such a state?” asked Sir Edmund.
The angry stranger barked out a laugh. “Oh, just the usual. I’m sorry to startle you all, and grateful I don’t seem to have done further damage.” Holding his still skittish horse in an iron grip with one hand, he removed his hat with the other. “Mrs. Shelby, Miss Shelby.” He turned his head, looking once more toward Deborah, clearly expecting an introduction.
The storm still raging in his intense blue eyes was barely controlled. It should have been frightening, and her heart did skitter in response, but mostly, she was conscious of curiosity.
“Oh, she is just the governess,” Lucy said gaily.
Deborah blinked, answering his bow with a smile so faint and hesitant it might have been worthy of the most downtrodden governess ever employed.
“Miss Tumblebumpkin,” Giles said irrepressibly.
“Raspberry,” Lizzie insisted.
The stranger’s gaze flickered to the children, his scowl fading into something that might have been amusement. “Christopher Halland,” he said, “at your service…ma’am.”
“Dismount and walk with us,” Sir Edmund invited. “The poor beast looks as if he could do with the rest.”
“But sadly, I could not,” Mr. Halland said shortly. The frown was back. “I am unfit for company and must wish you a pleasant stroll without me. Good day.”
With that, he clapped his hat back on his head, maneuvered the horse past everyone on the path. Almost immediately, the horse broke into a canter, then jumped the hedge into the field beyond, and galloped off into the distance.
“What a strange, abrupt young man,” Deborah’s mother observed. “He seemed much more pleasant when we dined at Coggleton House last week.”
“Ah, well, I suspect his hopes have been dashed,” Sir Edmund excused. “Gosmere Hall is his, you know, held in trust for him, along with a small fortune, by his grandfather.”
“Lord Hawfield?” Lucy asked, perhaps to show Deborah the noble circles to which the family now aspired.
“Yes. They’re always at loggerheads over something, and Halland has been chafing for years to have the trust relaxed.”
“Why?” Deborah’s mother asked. “He does not live there, does he? No one has since we arrived in Coggleton three years ago.”
“Oh, he has plans for the place,” Sir Edmund said vaguely. “He arranged for his lordship to meet him at Gosmere to explain them, hoping to extract his inheritance early, but clearly the old gentleman has not bitten. May I escort you ladies wherever you are going?”
“Oh, we were just walking,” Lucy said.
“I think we’ve come far enough,” their mother said. “But walk with us, by all means, Sir Edmund. “Perhaps you could join us for tea?”
Sir Edmund glanced at his fob timepiece. “Sadly, I have an appointment.” He wrinkled his nose. “Dull estate business, you understand, but has to be done. However, I shall be glad if I may walk back to the village with you.”
Deborah had plenty of opportunity to observe Sir Edmund and Lucy during the walk home. Without neglecting their mother, and with frequent remarks cast at one or other of the children, he still found plenty of opportunities to stroll with Lucy a little distance in front of the main party. They appeared to enjoy these more private conversations, and by the time they bade him goodbye, Deborah began to feel much more hopeful.
“Only, why on earth did you tell him I’m the governess?” she demanded of Lucy as they sat down in the parlor once more.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Lucy said carelessly. “It just slipped out.”
“Well, you had better tell him the truth or it will create a very odd impression of you,” their mother said severely, although she had hardly disputed the claim at the time.
“It will create an odder impression if I change the story now,” Lucy retorted. “Besides, Deb will be gone again soon to another position, will she not? He need not see her again for ages and when he does, he will not remember her, for no one notices the governess.”
“It could take me weeks to find a suitable position,” Deborah pointed out, when she could speak. “And I am hardly unknown in the neighborhood. The entire village knows we do not employ a governess. Apart from Miss Figgis now and again.”
“Besides,” their mother said crossly, “one of the points of your marrying Sir Edmund. Lucy, is that she need not take any more positions.”
“You will have to tell him the truth,” Deborah urged. “Otherwise, the silly lie will come back and bite you.”
“I would not have to lie if you were not ruined!” Lucy snapped.
Deborah fell back against the cushions as though she had been struck.
Lucy’s gaze fell. “I shouldn’t have said it, but how can I possibly take it back again now?”
Deborah swallowed. “Make a joke of it. The children clearly did. You were only going along with their nonsense and never expected him to take you seriously.”
Lucy raised her gaze once more and gave a twisted smile. “You’re a better liar than I am, Deb. You should be able to come up with something equally good to justify your scandal.”
“If there is any scandal,” their mother said firmly. “I am still hopeful nothing will come of it. The papers will be too full of the princess going abroad to even mention her lades.”
Deborah hoped so, too, though somehow she didn’t believe it would be quite that simple.