The Wicked Sister - Blackhaven Brides, Book 14
Light, fun Regency romance from Mary Lancaster.
Welcome to Blackhaven, where the great and the bad of visiting Regency society turn local life upside down...
The debutante meets the radical…
Lady Maria returns to Braithwaite Castle from her first London season with a scandal about to break over her head. A sweet-natured girl, she loathes confrontation and is dreading the scolding from her mother and brother. But help comes from an unexpected source – Lord Braithwaite’s new secretary, Michael Hanson.
Michael is poor, clever, ambitious - and a political radical. Engaged to be married to a lady who actively shares his views, he never imagines he could fall for his employer’s lovely, if rather haunted, sister. But there is more than frivolity to Maria, and he is quickly drawn to her humor and compassion, and to the troubles her good-nature keeps heaping upon her.
When her first love pops back into her life to blackmail her over her indiscretion a year ago, it is Michael she turns to for help. But Michael, too, has his problems as he is under suspicion for publishing seditious pamphlets that could affect Britain’s last battle with Napoleon Bonaparte.
As the European stage is set for Waterloo, Michael and Maria work together to find the conspirators before it is too late.
In the process, they fall in love, but honor as well as their difference in rank, might keep them apart…
Read an excerpt below
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The drizzling rain lent a misty, almost dreamlike quality to the castle. Lady Maria Conway sighed as the carriage thundered ever-closer. The scolds she was about to receive would be real enough. Her stomach was already knotted in unpleasant anticipation.
Distractedly, she rubbed her gloved hands together, trying to soothe her nerves by pressing her thumb against the sore place on her palm. She became aware both her adult companions were gazing at her with a mixture of pity and rueful amusement.
“It will be fine,” Lady Wickenden assured her, smoothing the hair of the child asleep on her lap. “I explained to your mother that it was not your fault, and no harm was done. It will all blow over before you return to London.”
“I doubt I shall be allowed to return to London,” Maria said gloomily. “When Serena—” She broke off, her eyes widening as a new realization hit her. She gazed in wonder at Lady Wickenden. “I don’t believe I want to go back.” She laughed. “I don’t even want to be married! At all! Ever! In which case, none of this nonsense matters.” She warmed to her theme. “And think how much money I would save Gervaise.”
“Think how much he’s already spent,” Lord Wickenden drawled, giving her pause.
“There is that,” she agreed.
He laughed. “Don’t be disheartened. He does not grudge a penny. You know his aim is to see you happy.”
“Creditably established is the phrase generally used,” Maria said with loathing.
“It hasn’t worked out so badly for your sisters,” Lady Wickenden argued. “Or for me.”
Maria did not point out that none of her suitors could hold a candle to Lord Wickenden or either of her brothers-in-law. Not that she would have wished to marry any of them, either, even if it had been possible. But at least she could understand her sisters’ choices. And Lady Wickenden’s.
The carriage slowed on the gravel drive before the newer part of the house, and Maria’s stomach tightened again. It wasn’t going to be the reunion she had imagined a week ago—her mother and brother proud of her, her older sisters delighted to see her again …
As the carriage door was opened and the steps let down, her younger sisters Alice and Helen spilled out of the vehicle, blind and deaf to the protests of their governess. And from the front door, Frances and Serena came rushing down the steps to meet them. Gervaise and Eleanor walked behind with a little more dignity.
“Courage, my dear,” Lady Wickenden whispered to Maria as she descended from the carriage. “Remember your mother’s bark is worse than her bite.”
In fact, it was the bark that concerned her. The bite—the punishment—was likely to be her immurement in the castle, as had happened to Serena when she committed some indiscretion. Maria was quite happy to accept this, but her mother’s scolds, Gervaise’s disapproval…
“Maria!” Frances swept her into an enthusiastic embrace, and then Serena was there, too. Maria tried not to cling to them, for she could see in their sympathetic eyes that she was in trouble.
But at least she would not be verbally flayed before Lord and Lady Wickenden.
“Come into the house,” Frances insisted. “This rain is horrible!”
“Just to pay our respects to her ladyship,” Lady Wickenden agreed. “Bernard and Isabella are expecting us in Blackhaven…”
Gervaise, having extracted himself with difficulty from Alice and Helen, came and kissed Maria’s cheek. “Welcome home.”
Maria was not comforted. There was a flinty look in his eye that did not bode well. And Eleanor’s smile was too bright, her hug too sympathetic.
Oh yes, I’m going to be scolded to death.
She wondered if she could persuade the Wickendens to stay for tea.
But they were as good as their word. Having greeted Maria’s mother, the stately dowager Countess of Braithwaite, they took their leave, kissed Maria and departed.
Maria was left gazing over the heads of her little sisters at her mother.
“Well, Maria,” the countess said coldly.
Maria’s heart shriveled. Her mother was stern, but she could not remember another time when she had withheld her affection. Oh yes, Maria was in trouble. But she went up and kissed her parent’s cool, smooth cheek. “Mama,” she murmured.
As she stepped back, Miss Harker, the governess, began to gather up her charges and Maria, inspired, said, “Eleanor, may the girls not have tea with us, since they have just come home?”
“I have no objections,” Eleanor said at once. “But that is your mother’s decision.”
Her mother’s face softened as she regarded her youngest offspring, and Maria could breathe again. No one would shout at her in front of the children.
However, Frances at least was wise to her machinations, for as they walked up the marble staircase to the drawing room, she murmured in Maria’s ear, “Best to just get it over with, you know. It will just hang over you and spoil your peace.”
“I know.” All the same, her every instinct insisted on putting off the scold for as long as possible. She even harbored the feeble hope that if she could somehow get through the day, no one would bother bringing it up tomorrow, and everyone would pretend “it” had never happened.
“I wish you had come last week,” Eleanor told them brightly as everyone made themselves comfortable in the familiar splendor of the drawing room. Lord Torridon, Frances’s husband, was already there. He put down his book at once and stood, giving Maria an encouraging smile. He had helped her out of her last scrape, a reluctant elopement with a paltry, fortune-hunting officer.
“Oh, yes, we have had such excitement here,” Frances said.
“We have,” Serena agreed as her husband, Lord Tamar wandered in. “We finally met Cousin John Cramond’s widow, and we’ve had highway robbery, discovered treasure, escaped prisoners, elopement…”
“All in a week?” Maria said dubiously.
“More or less,” Serena said.
“Doesn’t Cousin John have children?” Helen asked. “Can we meet them?”
“No, for they left yesterday,” Frances replied. “But after tea, you must come to the nursery and be reunited with your niece and nephews!”
Maria looked forward to that, though she doubted she could avoid Gervaise there. Or her mother.
Frances was right. The anticipation of scolding and rows was spoiling her homecoming. She should get it over with. And yet, as soon as she had finished tea, she sprang up, exclaiming, “I really must go to my chamber and change! I feel positively travel-stained and grubby! Excuse me, Mama.”
She curtsied, glimpsed the light of battle in her mother’s eyes, and fled—not to her bedchamber, that would have been foolish—but through the open door of the library, a haven of peace and tranquility. At least when Gervaise was not in it. But she reckoned she would be safe for the afternoon at least.
Hastily, she rushed up to the bookcase full of novels, was delighted to see Mansfield Park and seized it before collapsing on the nearest sofa with relief.
She had read the same opening paragraph twice before it came to her that she was not alone in the library.
No one had followed her in. Someone had already been here.
Slowly, she raised her gaze to the table across the room piled high with books and papers and pens. The chair, which had a plain, black coat hung carelessly over its back, had been pushed away from the table and was empty. Her gaze shifted and beheld a man, most of the way up the tall ladder, half-sitting with a book balanced on his knee and another open in his hand.
He was young, in his twenties, with straight, dark-brown hair, cut shortish but not stylishly. He wore spectacles, but no coat, and his shirt-sleeves had been rolled up almost to the elbows. He gazed back at her without either recognition or embarrassment.
“Who on earth are you?” she blurted. Some other visitor no one had told her about? Or perhaps she had been paying no attention, which seemed likelier.
“Hanson.” The man closed his book, picked the other off his knee, and descended the ladder. “Who on earth are you?”
It might have been insolence, but it made her smile. “Maria.”
“Can I help you?” He crossed to the heaped table and dropped the books on the smallest pile.
“No,” she said regretfully. “Not unless you’re prepared to keep your voice down so that no one guesses I’m in here with you.”
“Ah. You’re hiding.”
“I am. What are you doing?”
“Working.” He glanced at his desk. “I’m his lordship’s secretary.”
“Ah! I’d forgotten he had one of those now. How do you do? I’m his lordship’s sister.”
Mr. Hanson sat down. “I know.”
He wasn’t remotely overawed. Maria rather liked that. In fact, it intrigued her. For a man in a relatively lowly position, he seemed quite unmoved by her presence. In fact, he showed no interest in her at all.
She stood up and took the chair on the other side of his table so that their voices wouldn’t carry into the gallery. “What exactly do you do for my brother?”
“Research the matters which interest him, find facts, figures, history, precedent, so that he can argue or advise from a position of knowledge. And I help write some of his more important speeches.”
She blinked. “I imagined you would just deal with his social engagements.”
“I do that, too.”
She waved one hand at the books on his desk. “I suppose even Gervaise doesn’t need such mighty tomes to accept an invitation to dinner,” she observed.
“Nor even to refuse one.” He glanced up and met her gaze. A beam of pale sunlight glinted off his glasses. “Who are you hiding from?”
“I’m about to get a mighty scold,” she confided.
“Why? What heinous crime did you commit?” He spoke with light humor, despite the seriousness of his face, but Maria was quick to pick up the faint, tolerant contempt in there, too. He imagined her transgression was so trivial it mattered to no one but her—that she hadn’t changed for tea, which, in fact, she hadn’t, or forgotten someone’s name, or curtsied to the wrong depth.
She lifted her brows. “I met a man alone on a dark terrace when everyone else was in bed. Or at least I thought they were, but we were seen.”
He regarded her, his eyes unreadable behind the glasses. “That wasn’t very clever.”
“No, it wasn’t,” Maria agreed ruefully. Forgetting she had meant to impress with the depths of her depravity, she added, “And I can’t really tell them I only went down there because I thought it was Alice and Helen throwing stones at my window.”
“Because that would reveal that they were in fact in the habit of doing such things?” he guessed.
She nodded, pleased with his quick understanding. “Precisely.”
“But it wasn’t your sisters?” he pursued.
“By no means. It was…a man who wanted to elope with me.”
“But you didn’t want to elope with him?”
“Of course not,” Maria said with dignity. “He is a mere fortune-hunter. Besides, I have quite decided I don’t wish to be married at all.”
She fully expected mocking laughter, indulgent or otherwise, or at least some comment about her youth and being incapable of knowing what she wanted. Instead, one of his unexpectedly dramatic eyebrows rose above the frame of his spectacles, and he asked with apparently genuine interest, “Really? Why not?”
“Well…it seems to me men are rather silly—present company excepted, of course.”
“And I couldn’t actually bear to live in the same house as most of them for longer than a week at a time.”
“From what I know of aristocratic marriages,” he said dryly, “that need not deter you.”
“My brother and my sisters live with their spouses nearly all the time,” she protested, “and you can’t get much more aristocratic than them!”
His lip twitched. “That is very true. I didn’t realize you wanted a love match.”
“I don’t want a match at all!” she exclaimed, then catching the glint on his spectacles, she added, “Provoking man.”
She regarded him more closely. Behind the spectacles, he was quite handsome, with a high, intelligent forehead, well-defined cheek bones and a determined, slightly pointed chin. His shapely lips added a hint of sensitivity, and she suspected the thick eyebrows, mostly hidden by the frame of his glasses, gave his face a touch of distinction.
“In any case, why do you defend marriage?” she asked. “Do you have a wife?”
“Not yet.” He seemed to hesitate, then admitted, “I am engaged to be married.”
“Hmm. Congratulations. But the men I meet are nothing like you.” She stopped, realizing how that might be misconstrued and added hastily, “Or like Tamar or Torridon, or even my brother, who are all fun in their own way, and yet they contrive to be neither idiots nor dead sticks.”
“Oh dear. If you have to choose only between idiots, dead sticks, and fortune hunters, I can see why you might wish to stay single.”
She smiled, pleased to find him so sensible.
For an instant too long, his eyes remained steady on her face. Then he blinked. “Although, to be fair, you have many years in which to discover someone more congenial.”
“Tell that to my mama.”
“I would not dare.”
Maria laughed. “How old is your betrothed?”
“I’m sure you don’t throw stones at her window and expect her to elope with you.”
“No,” he confessed thoughtfully. “Although it might be fun.”
She shuddered. “It isn’t. Trust me.”
The interested eyebrow flew up again. And then his head twitched, clearly distracted. “If you’re really hiding…” he began softly.
But by then, she had heard it, too, the approach of footsteps across the gallery floor. Maria jumped to her feet and flew in the direction of the sofa. If she crouched behind it, she would not be seen from the door.
Unfortunately, Gervaise was quicker and strode in when she had only just reached the sofa arm. She froze. Behind him came her mother.