Pursued by the Rake - Season of Scandal, Book 1
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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.
If her reputation is false, is his?
Hazel is ruined. With no money, no near family, and the stagecoach to her old governess’s home vanishing into the distance, she is forced to accept the help of the one man she never wished to set eyes on again.
To Hazel, the handsome and respected diplomat Sir Joseph Sayle is an infamous rake who took advantage of the princess she served. She hates his arrogance as much as his inexplicable effect on her senses. Under normal circumstances she would never have dreamed of setting foot in his curricle, least of all when he was, by his own admission, “not entirely sober” after a night’s carousing.
However, the journey in his relaxed company is unexpectedly fun, and when they reach their destination and are threatened by a parcel of eccentric children with a pistol, he enters the adventure with enthusiasm. It seems Sir Joe is much more than the man Hazel thought him. Amusing, kind, and passionate, he and his elegant pursuit provide exciting distractions to her woes.
But flirting with him is a dangerous game, and by the time they face the trickster responsible for her ruin, her heart is already lost.
The residence of the Princess of Wales blazed with light. Stepping down from the post-chaise in Connaught Place, Miss Hazel Curwen winced at the extravagance, for it was only just dusk. She supposed Her Highness was holding a farewell party for all the friends she would leave behind when she sailed for the continent.
Hazel paid the post boy and turned to the front door. Excitement hastened her steps, for she thought the princess would leave London very soon, and Hazel, whose good fortune it was to be on duty as her attendant these next few weeks, was surely destined to go with her.
As she raised her hand to the knocker, the door flew open and one of the footmen strode out. Hastily, she stepped aside to avoid being knocked over. The man at least retained enough civility to mumble an apology as he dashed by, leaving the door wide open for her. He carried something large under his arm. Perhaps he had been sent to borrow more glasses or crockery for her highness’s impromptu party.
As she stepped inside, the footman called back over his shoulder, “Wouldn’t go in there, if I were you, Miss!”
Which was odd, even by the standards of some of the servants the princess employed. Hazel suspected some of them were also spies in the pay of the Prince Regent.
Closing the door behind her, she glanced around for other servants or ladies to tell her what was happening. But although the entrance hall glowed with candlelight, as did the reception rooms, she saw no one to ask. Hastily, she climbed the stairs toward the source of the noise.
Someone in the drawing room was playing the pianoforte—badly—and a tenor voice was raised in song. One of Her Highness’s new favorites, no doubt. A female voice screeched in vulgar laughter, and it struck Hazel uneasily that the party was perhaps a little too boisterous for taste.
Of course, the princess was boisterous by nature, and some of her friends were of questionable character, but she had her own lines of what was pleasing. Hazel suspected some of these guests were crossing it.
She was sure of this as she reached the landing and several young men spilled out of the drawing room in a burst of laughter. Clearly inebriated, they staggered, holding each other up until Hazel caught their attention.
“Well, well, such beauty late to the party,” one of them slurred, looking her up and down in a manner that was not only rude but offensive.
“Come and join us,” another invited, actually reaching for her. He stumbled when she backed out of reach, and laughed.
“If I were you,” the first man said. “I wouldn’t be so choosy.”
“If I were you, I would show myself out,” Hazel retorted with contempt. “Before Her Royal Highness witnesses such a display.”
She moved toward the drawing room and halted, for it was clear the princess was not there. She tended to draw all eyes, be the center of all attention. Not only was she absent, but Hazel could recognize no one. Except Lord Barden.
Lord Barden was really the Prince Regent’s man, and Hazel had her own reasons to dislike him. But his duties included negotiating between the estranged husband and wife, and his efforts had often brought some good to the princess—in minor ways, it was true, but in this present company, he seemed the closest thing to a friend.
Hazel tried quite hard to catch his eye, but he was too deep in conversation to glance toward her. Did she risk going in?
Behind her, a young woman ran screeching from the dining room, straight into the arms of the inebriates. Hazel opened her mouth to save the female from their attentions, but the girl was already giggling and preening.
“Miss Curwen! Hazel!” came a hiss from the next flight of stairs.
Lady Juliet Lilbourne, with whom she had attended the princess before, stood half-way up to the next floor, beckoning to her. Behind Lady Juliet was another woman of the bedchamber, Miss Shelby.
With relief, Hazel hurried toward them, all but running up the staircase. “What on earth is going on?” she asked them. “Where is Her Highness?”
Juliet seized her by the arm and dragged her further up toward the landing where the princess’s private apartments were. By way of answering, she pointed toward the closed doors.
“Can’t she hear the racket down there?” Hazel demanded.
“Presumably, she’s otherwise occupied,” Lady Juliette said dryly. As an engaged lady, she could be assumed to know slightly more than the spinsters about what went on behind the closed door of the princess’s bedchamber.
Hazel followed her and Miss Shelby into the small chamber next to it. This was used as a sitting room by the princess’s ladies. Here, a fourth lady jumped to her feet, looking alarmed.
“Do you know Lady Meg?” Juliet asked hastily.
“We have met in passing,” Hazel said. “Why are so many of us here? Are you about to finish your duty?”
“No, we’ve just arrived in the last hour,” Juliet said. “Unexpected summons. I presumed we had been chosen to accompany her highness abroad.”
“All of us?” Hazel asked in surprise. “That would be excellent! When do we leave?”
“Judging by the party below, I suppose it will be tomorrow,” Miss Shelby murmured.
“Is there no one here to throw them all out?” Hazel asked, setting down her bag and cloak. “I am prepared to try, but the only sober man of authority appears to be Lord Barden, and it is hardly his place to back me.” In fact, it was doubtful if he would.
Miss Shelby sniffed. “I would not be surprised if he had encouraged all this, on behalf of the Prince Regent, just as a last-minute effort to destroy Her Highness’s name—again—before she leaves.”
“Oh, no,” Hazel said, alarmed. “Surely he would not do such a thing? I admit he is somewhat slimy, and abominably full of his own importance. But I always found him sympathetic to the princess.”
“Well, he seemed pleased to see us,” Lady Meg volunteered. “So, he must be glad the princess has us here with her.”
“At any rate, I would not go down there without an escort,” Lady Juliet said firmly. Her gaze fixed significantly on the wall adjoining the princess’s apartments. “We think Sir Joseph would be an excellent escort…when he is available.”
Sir Joseph. Hazel’s stomach gave an uncomfortable lurch. It generally did whenever Sir Joseph Sayle’s name was mentioned—no doubt something to do with her instinctive antipathy and the enigmatic smile in his sardonic, mocking eyes.
She had only met the man twice, during her last duty with the princess. The first time, on the day her duty had begun, she had walked into the princess’s private apartments, humming to herself as she set down a batch of letters and gifts that had been delivered that morning. Without warning, the bedchamber door had opened and a tall, fair, loose-limbed gentleman had sauntered out in his shirt-sleeves, casually fastening his waistcoat buttons. His coat, she became aware as he walked toward it, was hanging over the back of a chair.
He had halted at about the same time as she had stopped humming to stare at him, all her hackles rising. At first, she had been annoyed with herself for not paying attention and allowing this encounter to happen. And then outrage had surged against the unknown man whom she had never seen before. By his dress and manner, he considered himself a gentleman, and yet he had clearly taken advantage of the princess’s loneliness and good nature.
She had glared at him, and a gleam of amusement had drowned the surprise in his rather sleepy eyes. Somehow, everything had felt worse because the man was devastatingly handsome. And not remotely embarrassed. He had merely bowed elaborately, and under Hazel’s disapproving stare, had shrugged himself into his excellently fitting coat and buttoned it with long, deft fingers. Glancing up, he had caught her baleful gaze once more and actually dared to smile. A flashing smile that curved his sinfully sensual lips and made his eyes dance.
And then, with supreme mockery, he had raised his hand and blown her an insolent kiss before sauntering out of the room.
That would have been bad enough, but when she had eventually gone in to the princess, Her Highness had looked like the cat who got the cream.
Several days later, she had seen him again, among other guests in the drawing room, where there had been music and dancing. The princess had been at her most lively, constantly demanding his attention with cries of “Joe!”
If he had noticed Hazel, or even remembered her, he had given no sign until by some inattention on her part, she had almost walked into him as he’d been strolling across the room. She would have moved on with a murmured apology, but she had made the mistake of glancing up—and up, for he was very tall—and those hooded, mocking eyes had transfixed her.
“Why, my angry little handmaiden,” he had drawled, which had so outraged her that she had brushed past him without a word. He must have left shortly afterward, for she hadn’t seen him again that evening. Or any other before she had finished her spell of duty and returned to her grandmother.
“Is he here much?” she asked bluntly.
The other ladies shrugged.
“I only heard he was here now,” Lady Juliet admitted. “None of us have seen either him or the princess.”
Hazel blinked. “Then we don’t even know if Her Highness is in her chamber?”
Juliet met her gaze. “Do you want to go in and find out?”
Hazel shuddered. It wasn’t even so much the princess’s anger as much as the prospect of encountering Sir Joseph at an even more intimate moment that appalled her.
“Exactly,” Juliet said ruefully. “This is really not a position for young, unmarried ladies.”
“And yet, here we all are,” Lady Meg observed, “not only prepared, but desperate to go abroad with her.”
“I would like her to be happy,” Hazel confessed. “Her life here is intolerable. And who would not wish to travel and see the world? We have been trapped on our own island for so long!”
The others nodded enthusiastically, as glad as everyone else at the ending of the long war with France.
“Sir Joseph hasn’t been trapped,” Lady Meg said vaguely. “He has been with various embassies to Russia, the Ottoman Empire, and China, and trailed across war-torn Europe dodging French armies.”
Hazel’s lip curled. “Did he tell you that?”
Lady Meg frowned. “No, I think it was my brother-in-law. But the question is, what do we do now?”
Hazel frowned and walked across to the bell pull. “Where on earth are the servants? They must eject our revelers, for Her Highness would not countenance the behavior downstairs.”
“I think they’re hiding, too,” Miss Shelby volunteered. “Apart from Harold the footman who let me in, I haven’t seen any of them.”
Hazel pulled the bell vigorously. But the figure of the footman bolting out of the door with a large box under his arm began to feel a little more sinister. “Wouldn’t go in there, if I were you, Miss!”
After ten minutes and several more rings, it was clear no one was going to come.
“I think they’ve all gone,” Hazel said flatly.
“And left Her Highness?” Lady Juliet gasped.
“Well, her maids are probably hiding downstairs and afraid to answer us.”
“Maybe we should leave, too, through the kitchens,” Lady Meg suggested. “We could use the servants’ stairs.”
“We can’t leave the princess alone with these drunken buffoons all over the house,” Hazel objected.
“At least she has Sir Joseph. Maybe.”
They looked at each other.
“Maybe we should just wait until they come out,” Miss Shelby said reluctantly. “Surely the racket will reach them eventually.”
However, none of them were very good at doing nothing, so eventually, leaving Lady Juliet and Miss Shelby to guard the princess, Hazel and Lady Meg crept along the landing to the servant’s stairs.
But even here, the revelry was loud. Not only that, on the dark landing below, some distasteful feminine giggling was accompanied by throaty male groans. As one, Hazel and Meg retreated.
The main staircase was already full of men and daringly dressed women, standing or sitting. Wine was flowing and spilling.
“Even if we could get past them,” Meg murmured, “they’re getting closer and closer to the princess’s chambers.”
They returned to the sitting room to report to the others.
“I think we’re trapped until they all leave or the princess emerges,” Hazel observed.
“As I see it, we have two alternatives,” Lady Juliet said. “We could flee this floor and try to sleep in the ladies’ chamber upstairs. Or we could creep into Her Highness’s apartments and guard her in the outer room.”
“I don’t like either of these options,” Hazel said. “One is too far away from Her Highness, and the other is too close!”
Lady Juliet giggled, then straightened her face. “Well observed. Then I suppose we must simply wait here, unless they swarm onto his landing, in which case, we flee to the princess’s rooms and to the devil with our modesty and Her Highness’s privacy.”
Hazel nodded reluctantly.
So, they locked the sitting room door and took it in turns to sit by it and peer through the keyhole for marauders.
Hazel woke with a start, uncomfortable and alarmed. The last candle was guttering, and the other ladies were talking in whispers.
Hastily, she wiped the dribble from around her mouth. “What’s happening?”
“It’s been quiet for about half an hour,” Miss Shelby said. “We’re discussing what to do next. Don’t worry, you haven’t been asleep longer than thirty minutes.”
“Is the princess awake? Have the revelers gone?”
“We haven’t heard a thing. And dawn is breaking.”
It was summer. Dawn came early.
Hazel rose stiffly from her uncomfortable chair. “We have to go out and look.”
Her heart hammering, she opened the door. The passage was indeed empty. And the house was quiet. She crept to the stairs. Two men and a scantily dressed woman lay near the bottom. She might have thought they were dead, except for the stertorous snoring.
“This is insane,” Hazel said angrily. With decision, she strode toward the princess’s door and knocked loudly.
The others clearly agreed with her strategy, for Juliet murmured, “Knock again. Harder.”
Obediently, she did, and on getting no answer, she drew in her breath, met the nervous gaze of the other women, and tried the door.
It opened at once.
Most of the furnishings had gone. Worse, the connecting door to the bedchamber stood wide open, and the bed was stripped and empty.
In horror, the four of them walked across the sitting room and saw that the open wardrobes and cupboards were empty, too.
“She’s gone,” Hazel whispered. “She was never here. Not last night.”
“Which means,” Lady Meg said flatly, “we have just spent an entire night unchaperoned at an orgy.”
And Miss Shelby uttered what they all knew. “We are ruined.”
There was a moment of utter silence.
“Ruined?” Hazel repeated with determination. “Not necessarily. But we need to get home to our families at once so that they tell no one we were ever here.” Her own difficulties were slightly more complicated, so she forced herself to focus on the others, looking first at Lady Juliet. “Are your parents in London?”
“No, they’re in the country.” Juliet straightened her shoulders. “But I can return to my betrothed’s family in South Audley Street. I was staying with Lady Alford before I came here.”
“I think you should call me Deb. In the circumstances, it seems silly to cling to formality! I shall have to go home at once. But I can manage. I have enough money to travel post back to Cheshire. I just didn’t plan on using it so early… What of you, Meg?”
“My parents are still in London. We should walk together as far as we may, Juliet, so as to attract less attention. Hazel?”
“My father has just gone to sea, and my grandmother to Scotland.” She took a deep breath. “I’m afraid I don’t have enough money to follow her to Scotland, even on the stagecoach.”
“We must pool our resources,” Juliet decided, “according to what we need. But is there no one closer for you? To deny that you were here?”
Hazel brightened. “There is my old governess! She has recently married a clergyman and lives now in Essex. I can easily afford the stagecoach there— although I think it is a long walk to the Blue Boar in Aldgate to catch it.”
“An unsafe walk,” Lady Meg said. “Take a hackney.” She pushed some coins into Hazel’s hand.
“I shall pay you back,” Hazel said earnestly, for she could not bring herself to refuse.
“When you can,” Meg said. “Now, let us be gone from this place.”
They donned their outerwear and bonnets, picked up their valises and left the room. The bodies on the stairs grumbled as they fought their way past, but barely troubled to move. Several people were stirring in the drawing room, so the young ladies all turned their faces away and fled down the next flight of stairs to the entrance hall. Juliet threw open the front door and they all fled outside.
Only as she closed the door did Hazel see the dark figure standing at the entrance to the reception room.
Outside was chilly, the street perfectly quiet in the pale light. She hurried after the others in the direction of Oxford Street.
“Lord Barden is still there,” Hazel said worriedly. “I don’t know if he saw us.”
“If he did, it is our word against his,” Deborah Shelby said grimly.
“Then let us hope he is more of a gentleman than his master ever was,” Juliet said. “Goodbye, my friends, and good luck.”
They embraced each other, which they had never done before, and fled in their different directions.
With considerable satisfaction, Lord Barden watched the princess’s young ladies scurry out of the house like frightened kittens.
His plan was working better than he had ever hoped.
Hazel Curwen, who was last to leave, probably saw him in the doorway, but that was all to the good.
After a few minutes, he also left the house, looking forward to a few hours of sleep in his comfortable bed. Tomorrow would be time enough to follow Hazel back to Captain Curwen’s house. By then, her ruin would be complete, and he could begin the next stage of his complex and really quite ingenious plan.