Authors: A. M. Westerling
Her Proper Scoundrel
Books We Love Ltd.
(Electronic Book Publishers)
Chestermere, Alberta, T1X 1C2
Copyright 2012 by A.M. Westerling
Cover art by: Michelle Lee Copyright 2012
All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.
To my boys
A big thank you to my fun and fabulous critique partners, Victoria Chatham and M.K. Stelmack. Also, thank you to the helpful staff at the About Bristol website.
London – 1798
The instant the Duke of Cranston staggered slack-jawed and glassy-eyed into the Eversleigh’s ballroom, Lady Josceline Woodsby knew the evening would turn into utter disaster.
A disaster which would doubtless encompass her, for the obviously inebriated Duke was her father. She licked her suddenly dry lips.
Shocked silence descended as he, swaying on unsteady legs, surveyed the gathering with an unfocused gaze. His moth-eaten wig sat askew, his black evening jacket was wrinkled and stained, and his boots sorely needed polishing. In short, Lord Peter Cranston, her once distinguished, once proud father, had degenerated into a pathetic caricature of his former self.
A guffaw split the silence. Already she could see the craned necks, the bowed heads whispering behind raised fans, the callous looks cast first her way, then to her father, then back to her. The titters and whispering started.
Heat engulfed her face clear into her scalp. Surely this nightmarish scene was not happening. She glanced sideways and caught the sympathetic gaze of her dearest friend, Lady Elizabeth Watson.
“Josceline! Daughter!” bellowed the duke although the words were so slurred it came out more as “Jozzlin! Dodder!” which almost suggested he was ordering her to wobble about the dance floor. An order she might find grimly amusing another time but not here, not now.
The titters and whispers grew louder.
Her heart pounded with shame and it rattled against her ribcage like a dice in a cup. Tonight’s invitation had been addressed to her alone. How had her father known she was here? Perhaps Mrs. Smeets, the housekeeper who doubled as her maid, had told him. If so, she would be sure to have a word with the woman reminding her that discretion was the time-honored trait of a lady’s maid.
Josceline glanced at her friend again. “And there you have,” she whispered through lips stiffened into a false smile, “the sole reason I shall never marry. After this display, I will surely be blackballed.”
Elizabeth leaned over and laid a plump hand on Josceline’s arm. “Don’t jump to hasty conclusions,” she consoled. “The high Season is still a few months away.”
Then Josceline saw the portly, unkempt figure following her father; her heart subsequently plummeted to her stomach where it hammered a ferocious cadence against the creamed chicken she had consumed at dinner.
Mr. Thomas Burrows. Mr. Burrows, the wealthy merchant who, in a bid to marry into a titled family, chose to overlook Lord Cranston’s sullied reputation to gain the hand of his only daughter. The same Mr. Burrows who now leered at her in far too suggestive of a manner. Her skin crawled.
From the corner of her eye, she noticed the imposing figure of Lady Eversleigh steaming towards her. Josceline groaned. She had no idea her father would show up uninvited and her hostess would likely not believe her. She braced herself for a verbal barrage.
But no, Lady Eversleigh merely gave Josceline a withering glare as she passed by to advance towards the unwelcome guests. With feathers bobbing and bosom heaving, she gestured frantically to several liveried footmen to remove the men in a desperate bid to save the evening from degenerating into mayhem.
As the guests’ attention was diverted to the entertaining spectacle of burly footmen tumbling the two out the door, Josceline slumped into her seat and wiped an unsteady hand across her damp forehead. She tucked her feet beneath her chair to hide the well worn heels of her slippers and neatly pulled her skirts over her legs before smoothing clammy palms over the blue silk. She eyed the lace trimmed hem ruefully. Elizabeth had leant Josceline the gown and she could only hope no one would remember her friend wore it to the opening assembly of Almack’s last year. It would fuel the gossiping tongues even more.
She lifted her head and scanned the crush of bodies in the flower bedecked room. Lady Eversleigh’s intervention had been successful - the glow from candle-lit chandeliers spilled a golden aura over the whirling couples on the dance floor. Couples. All happy couples. She looked away, blinking back tears.
“This evening’s events will fade soon enough.” Elizabeth’s calm voice penetrated Josceline’s misery. “You know how fickle the ton is when it comes to scandal and tittle tattle. By next week this will all be forgotten.”
“I know.” Josceline sighed. “It is just so difficult to attend these events when one’s father is a pariah. All I want is a decent man to love me. Me, Josceline, not Lord Cranston’s daughter.” She turned to Elizabeth. “It seems no men of my social standing can overlook my father’s unsavory reputation and sizeable debts, not even for the chance to marry the daughter of a duke. Plus I am now three and twenty, more than a few years removed from the debutantes coming out this season.”
“Shallow fools the lot of them,” declared Elizabeth stoutly.
“Now my father has decided I am to marry Mr. Burrows.” She shuddered at the remembrance of the man’s leering gaze. “After this evening’s embarrassment, the last thing I wish to do is obey my father. Particularly by marrying that odious man.”
“Marriage is what is expected of us.” Elizabeth tapped Josceline’s arm with her fan and regarded her friend with an earnest gaze. “But it’s not the only solution.”
“No, it’s not the only solution,” Josceline agreed reluctantly. “I could be a seamstress but-,” she held out her hands, displaying several pin pricked fingers. “I fear sewing is not a strength.” She dropped her hands to her lap. “I could become a companion or lady’s maid but no one would hire the daughter of a dishonored duke.”
“You have always been clever in the school room, much more clever than I ever was. You could teach. Or become a governess.” Elizabeth sat back with a satisfied expression on her round face. “A governess. That’s it. That’s what you could do.”
“Yes, I have considered that but it still leaves me with the same problem. Who would hire me?”
“Mama mentioned to me just this morning that her cousin, Lady Oakland, is in need of a good governess.” Elizabeth squeezed Josceline’s hand. “I shall speak to her about it. With my mama’s blessing, they shall doubtless find you more than acceptable. Besides-.” She leaned over to whisper in Josceline’s ear. “They live west of London, almost on the coast. Far enough away, surely, that no word of your father’s scandal shall follow you.”
Josceline leaned her head against the wall behind her. A governess. She quite liked the idea. Working as a governess would give her the dignity of earning her own way. And leaving London would take her far from wagging tongues and her father’s desire to give her hand to the highest bidder. Yes, a governess in a country estate would do quite nicely.
She’d contemplated it before but hadn’t thought it possible. But with the help of Elizabeth and her mama it could happen. Her papa would not be happy with her choice but it was her life to do with as she wished.
Mistress of her own destiny. How pleasing, and yes, how daring.
Now that would give the tongues something to wag about.
Clifton Hotel, Bristol, England
Two weeks later
“I believe,” drawled Christopher Sharrington, “the final trick is mine.” He placed his card on the ebony inlaid table with calm deliberation and raised his gaze to his opponent.
“Preposterous,” sputtered Lord Oliver Candel. “I accuse you of foul play.” He clutched the edge of the table with soft, pudgy fists and half stood, leaning towards Christopher. Disdain lifted one corner of his full-lipped mouth; scorn glittered in his watery blue eyes.
“Foul play?” Christopher swept his arm around the dimly lit room, encompassing the small crowd gathered around watching. “These gentlemen will attest to the fact no foul play was involved.” He scanned the faces around them but all evaded his gaze, one bystander even going so far as to blatantly inspect his fingernails.
Candel caught the slight motion. “You see,” he taunted. “You are nothing but a commoner. None shall stand for you.”
Damnation, the man was right. Well, if no one would support him, then he would continue on alone.
“The wager is won by me. Fairly.” Christopher reached out to grab the parchment sheet laid on the table between them like a marker in a battlefield. However, before he could reach it, Candel snatched it up and bolted from the room.
Stunned at the man’s impudence, Christopher sat for several minutes, struggling for breath against the white hot anger crushing against his chest.
Again. Yet again, he had been snubbed by the upper class. It had happened countless times as a growing lad. And now this evening too. First, by the witnesses to this evening’s game and then with his opponent openly reneging on the wager placed.
Worst of all, the man had run off with the ship’s deed that would have been the foundation for Christopher’s future.
Only this time, he would not stand for it. This time, by whatever means necessary, he would retrieve what rightfully belonged to him.
* * *
Christopher slapped his hands together against the cold. Damnation, could Lord Candel not have chosen a less inclement night to travel? He pulled off a glove and rubbed his nose – he’d been waiting in the frigid air so long, it had lost all feeling. Had he perhaps missed the man? He shook his head. Of course not, from his vantage point on the hedge-ringed knoll and with the help of a feeble winter moon, he had a clear view of Bath Road beneath him.
Not for the first time, he strained his ears to catch sound of an approaching carriage, but there was nothing, only the metallic crunching of his favorite mount, Vesuvius, chomping the bit and an occasional equine snort spewing clouds of frosty breath about them both.
And not for the first time, he was beginning to doubt the wisdom of confronting Candel on a deserted, moonlit road. True, the man had stolen his winnings but perhaps a duel at dawn’s light would have been better rather than the highwayman’s gambit he was about to employ.
There was still time to back down, guide away his horse and gallop off into the night with nary anyone the wiser. But no, he admonished himself, Candel was a noted coward, well known for avoiding the dueling field at all costs. He was more likely to accede to Sharrington’s demand for payment when delivered at gun point far from prying eyes. He patted the loaded pistol tucked into his waist. If need be, he had one shot.
The horse perked its ears and turned its head to the road below. After a few seconds, Christopher heard it as well: the jingle of the harness and the thud of hoof beats against the frozen ruts, the creak of a coach and the “geeup” of the coachman. He watched the coach approach, noting the slightly slumped form of the driver – drowsing, no doubt. He also noted the absence of footmen - he might have reconsidered if he had more than the driver to contend with. Luck was with him, then.
A thrill of anticipation coursed through his chest as he swung into the saddle.. At last he would receive what was due to him. He dug his heels into his horse’s flanks and man and beast thundered down the hill to burst through the hedge like avenging marauders. Heading straight towards the carriage, pistol waving in the air, great coat flapping about his thighs, he pulled up the horse at the last possible moment and leapt off.