Book 2 in the >Scandalous Seasons Series
Christopher Ansley, Earl of Waxham, has constructed a perfect image for the ton–the ladies love him and his company is desired by all. Only two people know the truth about Waxham’s secret. Unfortunately, one of them is Miss Sophie Winters.Sophie Winters has known Christopher since she was in leading strings. As children, they delighted in tormenting each other. Now at one and twenty, she still has a tendency to find herself in scrapes, and her marital prospects are slim.
When his father threatens to expose his shame to the ton, unless he weds Sophie for her dowry, Christopher concocts a plan to remain a bachelor. What he didn’t plan on, was falling in love with the lively, impetuous Sophie. As secrets are exposed, will Christopher’s love be enough when she discovers his role in his father’s scheme?
Lady Ackerly’s Tattle Sheet
Miss S.W. and Lady E.F. were observed leaving the Marquess of D’s theatre box. It was noted by many that both young ladies were unchaperoned.
Christopher Quenby Ansley, Earl of Waxham stared out the long, double windows of his father’s office, at the steady passing of carriages in the London streets below. His fingernails bit into the hard, window sill.
“You goddamn simpleton. I’ve tired of your games! Do you believe for one moment you are clever enough or powerful enough to thwart my wishes?”
Ah, so it was to be goddamn simpleton. Now there was one of Father’s favorite labels. From the glass pane, Christopher detected the way in which the Marquess of Milford’s face contorted with barely suppressed rage. The familiar vein pulsed at the corner of his sire’s right eye.
Knowing it would infuriate his father, Christopher feigned a yawn and wandered over to the collection of decanters atop the brass inlaid rosewood table closest to the door. For an infinitesimal moment, Christopher considered making his escape. Instead, he picked up one of the crystal bottles. “I don’t know what games you refer to,” he lied. He poured himself a brandy and took a sip.
The marquess slammed his fist down upon the mahogany desk. Reverberations shook the crystal ink wells upon the surface. “You know very well what I’m talking about. You may have fooled the rest of Society with your charm and wit, but I know the truth.”
Christopher inclined his head. “So I’m charming and witty? I’m honored, my lord.” He held his glass up in mock salute.
His father continued as though he hadn’t spoken. “I made Redbrooke a promise before he died. He’d forgive my debt and you’d wed Sophie if the chit hadn’t wed in her first two Seasons. Well, the gel is on her third and his son is proven far less accommodating than the late viscount. Redbrooke paid me a call to discuss the debt. Fortunate for us, the old viscount settled a fortune on the girl.”
That gave Christopher pause. He took another sip.
“The girl is worth close to 100,000 pounds.”
Christopher choked on a mouthful of brandy.
His father gave a curt nod. “I see I have your attention.”
Christopher downed the remaining contents of his glass and set it down. “One hundred thousand pounds?”
“You heard me, correctly.”
Christ. So Sophie Winters, the hoyden who’d made his earlier years a bloody misery was worth a fortune. He thought of the seat she’d occupied amongst the other wallflowers Season after Season. How very different things would be for the young lady if other gentlemen learned the truth.
His mouth tightened. Ten years. For ten long, wonderful years he’d not uttered more than passing greetings to the hellion who’d mocked him in his father’s stable. Memories he’d fought to keep long buried, resurfaced—her tinkling laugh as she’d scampered out of the stables. Christopher’s volatile reaction after she’d fled. The fire that had ravaged Christopher’s sanctuary. His gut clenched. Father had never forgiven him.
And Christopher had never forgiven himself.
Father folded his arms across his chest. “The old viscount had some kind of foolish idea about letting the girl make her own match.” He chuckled. “He imagined she’d bring some chap up to scratch on her own and didn’t want the incentive of money to motivate anyone. Fortunate for us, no one knows the truth.”
No one, except the Marquess of Milford.
And now, Christopher.
It would seem the late Viscount Redbrooke had been a deplorable judge of character.
Christopher crossed over to his father’s desk and braced his hands upon the top. He leaned close. “You were the one who made the viscount a promise. You were the one who owed the man. You’d have me wed her to assuage your responsibility?”
The marquess arched a brow. “You’re wrong on that score. I’d have you wed the girl to save us from financial ruin.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” He knew his father owed the late viscount a debt from a failed business venture, but just how extensive had that investment been? “How much do you owe Redbrooke?”
His father’s skin turned a ruddy shade of red. He tugged at his cravat. “It isn’t just Redbrooke.”
Christopher rocked back on his heels. Father had made some regrettable business decisions over the years but this, this was incomprehensible.
Father slashed the air with his hand. “The bloody French wars destroyed my investments. I sold off the textiles at a loss.”
Christopher swiped a hand across his eyes. His father had so little faith in him that he’d not even sought Christopher’s advice. For his academic failings, Christopher had excelled in all things mathematical. Why hadn’t the old bastard let him look at the bloody ledgers? “What you’re proposing is madness.” Christopher made an effort to avoid the hellion who roused memories of that fiery night…and now his father expected him to wed her?
The marquess jabbed a finger in his direction. “You idiot. You have an obligation to me.”
“I have an obligation to no one.”
His father’s white eyebrows dipped. “If you don’t marry her, we’ll be ruined. You won’t be so mighty when you’ve lost everything.”
Christopher frowned. “Surely you exaggerate?”
“The creditors have begun calling.” The black scowl on Father’s face was dark enough to raise bloody terror in the devil himself. Fortunate for Christopher, he’d grown accustomed to the hell of living in his father’s household long, long ago.
Christopher’s rash actions might have resulted in the destruction of his father’s stables but he hardly deserved to spend his entire life atoning for that great sin by marrying Sophie Winters. “I’m sorry, Father. I won’t wed her.” Christopher went and poured himself another brandy. He could only imagine the kind of woman she’d grown into. Christopher took a long swallow. Nor did he care to find out.
“You won’t be so casual when you are penniless, shut away from all good company. Christ, I’d had such great expectations for you.” The marquess’ hand slashed the air. “Who would have imagined you’d have turned into such a miserable failure as a son?”
Christopher clenched his jaw to keep from pointing out that it was the marquess’ poor investments and proclivity to the gaming tables that had put them in the spot. His mind wandered off during the all too familiar, tirade. How often had it gone this way with the marquess? Ever since Christopher was a young boy, struggling in his studies, his father had looked on him with contempt and shame.
The marquess presented one façade to Society and an altogether different one to the son who’d never managed to live up to his grand hopes. Over the years, Christopher had devoted himself to winning his father’s approval.
Now, at thirty years of age, he owned some of the finest horseflesh. His company was desired by the most influential members of the ton. Young ladies clamored for his notice.
All of that was irrelevant when coupled with his shortcomings.
As if sensing the dark direction his thoughts had taken, his father placed his palms on the surface of the desk and leaned over. Rage dripped from his ice blue eyes. “I know what you are thinking, boy. You’re saying to yourself ‘I’m the darling of Society,’ but my, how all that would change if you were found to be the penniless simpleton you truly are.”
A chill swept over Christopher. The promise of being cut off without funds didn’t terrify him as much as the risk of discovery. His father’s threat to expose Christopher’s struggles was a familiar one. Only this time, a thread of desperation underlined the marquess’ words, lending far too much credibility to his promise.
“You wouldn’t,” Christopher forced out past dry lips. “You’d shame yourself with any mention of the truth.”
“Bah, does it matter? If I am to lose everything, then by God I’ll see you suffer as well.” The marquess took a deep breath and composed himself. His age-weathered hands smoothed a path over the arms of the desk chair. “I know what you were about when you courted the Duke of Mallen’s sister.”
Oh, did he? Christopher arched a brow. “Please, enlighten me with your reasoning,” he drawled.
The marquess nodded. “You figured if you secured a match with the Duke of Mallen’s sister that as one of the most powerful peers in the realm, Mallen would protect you from Society’s scorn.” He continued with his flawed logic. “Except Lady Emmaline was far smarter than most gave her credit for. She saw your failings.” Just as I did. The words didn’t need to be spoken. They burned. Chafed. Dug at Christopher’s gut.
He’d not admit to his father that there had been more to his courtship of Lady Emmaline. He held a deep abiding respect for the Duke of Mallen’s sister. That, in no small way, motivated his courtship.
In the end, she’d chosen the better man in marrying Lord Drake, the Peninsula war hero and heir to a dukedom.
Christopher’s father was right.
God how he hated him for that.
Christopher peered down his nose at his father. “I’ll say it a final time. I won’t wed the lady, not to appease you.”
His father arched a single, ice-white brow. “This isn’t about appeasing me, Christopher. This is about survival.”
“You’d consign me to the role of fortune hunter? I’m certain that Miss Winters’ father had grander hopes for his daughter than marriage to a penniless earl.”
“The young lady is desperate. She’s better off with a fortune hunter than no one.”
Christopher balled his hands into tight fists at his side. Rage thrummed through him, volatile and burning. “I won’t.” He turned on his heel. He reached the front of the room when the marquess called out, halting him in his tracks.
“Yes you will, Christopher. If you don’t at least court the girl, I’ve no other choice but to cut off your allowance.”
Christopher stiffened. He directed his response at the doorway as a show of disrespect. “You are making the assumption that the young lady will accept my suit.”
“Way I see it, the girl is on her third Season without any prospects. She won’t have much of a choice.”
He closed his eyes.
“So what is your answer, boy?”
Christopher tugged at the lapels of his coat. “Go to hell,” he said.
His father’s laughter followed him from the room. It resonated with the cocksure arrogance of a man who knew Christopher had no eventual choice but capitulation.
Dearest Lord Drake,
Though you have never directly addressed me by name, I have decided I am far too old to be called Em. I ask you to instead call me Emmaline…that is, if you ever call upon me.
Two elegant phaetons barreled along Oxford Street, bearing down on an old woman peddling her goods. The merchant paled and tried to shove her cart up on the pavement. It tipped, swayed, and then careened into the street. Both men in their high flyers pulled sharp on the reins. Nearby, a passing gentleman pushed the lady on his arm away from certain calamity.
A vulgar shout and frightened screams split the cacophony of mundane street sounds.
Lady Emmaline Rose Fitzhugh paused on the pavement and raised a hand to shield her eyes against the sun’s brightness. She frowned.
Lord Whitmore and Lord Cavenleigh. Two of Society’s most dandified fops.
Lord Whitmore tugged hard at the reigns and leapt from the still moving conveyance. “You filthy cow!” He raged at the poor woman in the street.
Lord Cavenleigh, jumped down from his carriage and muttered a string of curses.
Emmaline’s skin heated at the rather descriptive obscenities they unleashed on the woman. Having an older brother, she’d heard her fair share of inappropriate words, but Cavenleigh’s litany was rather original even on that score.
As the street erupted with the panicked cries of young ladies, the peddler bowed her head. Stringy gray hair straggled into her eyes. “Oi’m sorry, m-my lord.”
Cavenleigh kicked a tomato at the old woman, and splattered her skirts with the ripened fruit.
Her maid, Grace, took her by the arm and attempted to steer her away. “Please, come away, my lady.”
Emmaline ignored her efforts and rushed into the fray. “Cease, immediately.” She stepped into the street just as the assailant launched another tomato at the peddler.
The projectile missed its intended mark and splattered onto the embroidered lace edging of Emmaline’s ivory silk skirts.
Hands squared on her hips, she glared at the two men. “How dare you?”
Whitmore, with his slickly oiled and very deliberately curled red hair, stepped around Emmaline to launch a barrage of insults at the quaking woman. He brandished his riding crop. “Sorry? You’re sorry? We could have been killed and for what? Your meaningless life and rotten vegetables?”
Emmaline threw herself in front of the aged peddler. “What manner of gentlemen would torment a defenseless woman?”
“No, my lady,” Grace cried.
A tall figure stepped into the fray and positioned himself between Grace and the two assailants. Society knew the gentleman as the Marquess of Drake.
Emmaline knew him as her betrothed.
Lord Drake wrenched the whip from the cad’s fingers, cracked the instrument in half, and tossed the two pieces aside.
Emmaline swallowed hard. Lord Drake stood more than a head taller than her and possessed the kind of hardened masculine perfection Michelangelo would have ached to memorialize in stone. The harsh angles of his face bespoke power and commanded notice. With rugged cheeks, aquiline nose, and squared jaw, he conveyed raw vitality. The hint of a curl to his unfashionably long golden hair seemed suited to this real life David.
“You clearly have very little value for your life,” Drake said to the two fops who’d moments ago tormented the poor old woman.
Emmaline’s stare collided with Drake’s emerald eyes. The green irises pierced through her with heated intensity; robbed her of breath.
Get a hold of yourself, Em. He is just a man. A gloriously, stunning man—but that was neither here nor there.
She looked toward Whitmore and Cavenleigh. Cavenleigh had the good sense to stagger backwards and scurry from the incident like a rodent discovered by Cook in the kitchens.
Lord Drake returned his focus to the red-haired assailant who’d wielded the weapon. He grabbed him by the wrist and applied such pressure, the man gasped.
A hiss of pain whistled past Whitmore’s lips. “For the love of God, man…” Whitmore pleaded.
“Had your whip hit its mark, you’d be facing me at dawn.” Drake’s voice was a silken promise. “What’s your name, pup?”
Whitmore swallowed, as though he’d been forced to scrape up a rotten tomato from the grimy pavement and swallow it whole. “L-Lord W-Whitmore.”
“Beg the lady’s pardon, Witless.”
A laugh escaped Emmaline.
Whitmore glared at her.
His actions did not escape Drake’s astute gaze. Lord Drake tightened his grip and the dandy whimpered like a naughty child who’d just had a birch rod put to his person by a too stern nursemaid. “Apologize.”
The young lord turned to Emmaline. “I-I’m sorry, my lady. M-my apologies,” he croaked.
She folded her arms across her chest and nodded pointedly at the old woman. “I say, you rather owe the both of us an apology.”
Whitmore’s eyes rounded with shocked indignation. “You’re mad.”
Lord Drake squeezed again.
“M-My apologies, my lady.”
Her betrothed jerked his chin in the peddler’s direction. “Now, the woman.”
Whitmore blinked; his pale white cheeks flamed a crimson red to match the bright hue of his hair. “Stupid old cow and her rotten vegetables nearly killed us.” He motioned down the expanse of his peacock blue satin breeches. “And look at this stain. Why, Brummell himself would have been proud to wear these.” The young man’s whining tone indicated he considered the attack on his wardrobe to be an equally grave affront.
The peddler’s chin fell to her chest as if she tried to make herself as small as possible.
Unable to remain silent any longer, Emmaline took a step toward the young fop. “Stupid, Lord Whitmore?” Passing a cursory glance over his frame, Emmaline shook her head. She nudged a tomato with the tip of her already ruined ivory satin slipper. “First of all, a tomato is a fruit, not a vegetable. Secondly,” it was her turn to gesture at the garment in question. “those breeches were ruined long before this incident.”
Whitmore frowned. “I don’t understand, my lady.”
Lord Drake’s chuckle tugged her attention momentarily in his direction. His lips quirked upward in a devastating smile that quickened her heart’s pace. “I believe that is the lady’s point, Whitmore,” Lord Drake drawled.
Whitmore’s gasp forced Emmaline’s attention away from her betrothed.
Enraged awareness dawned in the dandy’s eyes. “You witch.”
Emmaline took a step closer to Lord Drake.
A single black look from the marquess forced Whitmore to an ignoble halt. Drake leaned down close to the man and whispered something intended solely for the dandy’s ears.
All color leached from the brute’s cheeks. His head tipped up and down like a bobbing ship caught in a squall on the Channel. “M-my a-a-apologies, my lady.”
Drake dropped Whitmore’s wrist and wiped his hands back and forth as though he’d been sullied by the other man’s skin. His lethal glare froze the coward in his spot.
Whitmore cleared his throat. “What I’d intended to say, my lady, is that your rich beauty robbed me of any sense.” He looked to Lord Drake as he recited each word, indicating they were by no means original thoughts belonging to the jackanapes.
“One more thing,” Drake said.
With obvious reluctance, the humiliated dandy reached into the front of his elaborate, violet-hued floral jacket. He withdrew a bag of coins, stared at it forlornly, and then offered it to the peddler. “Here.”
The peddler’s eyes widened.
“Take it,” Drake said. There was an underlying warmth to his gruff tone.
With downcast eyes, the woman reached out and accepted the bag.
Drake returned his steely gaze to Whitmore. “I suggest you leave.”
When the other man continued to eye the bag in the woman’s hands with a blend of longing and bitter rage, Drake added, “Now.”
Whitmore reached down, scooped up the remnants of his short whip, and then clambered into his phaeton. He shot one last black look at the peddler and Emmaline, before striking his white mount with a piece of his crop. His phaeton resumed its reckless path down the street. Emmaline stared after the carriage, glad to be free of Whitmore’s loathsome company.
When Whitmore had gone, she turned back to the peddler. “Are you hurt?”
“No, my lady,” the woman whispered. Fat teardrops filled her eyes and spilled over onto her cheeks. She sniffed and dashed a hand across her nose. “My lady, my lord, oi thank you.”
Drake stepped out into the street. The heels of his gleaming black Hessian boots sank into a pile of rotten produce as he effortlessly righted the upended cart. Then, reaching into his jacket front, he pulled out a bag of coins, and returned to the old woman’s side. “Here.” He gently placed the bag in her dirt-encrusted fingers.
“Oi-Oi, thank you, my lord. Many blessings to you both.” She dipped an awkward curtsy and pushed her nearly emptied cart down the road.
Emmaline watched after her until she’d disappeared from sight.
With the excitement now over, Oxford Street and its passersby returned to their daily humdrum. Lord Drake turned his focus to Emmaline. “Have you been hurt, Lady Emmaline?”
She blinked. Then sighed. Maybe not in that order. Her mind seemed a bit…muddled. Yes, it was muddled. And her heart beat an oddly rapid rhythm in her chest—thumpthumpthumpthump. She tried to catch her breath but failed miserably.
And then realized what had happened. “Oh dear,” she said.
The earlier rage she’d seen in Lord Drake’s jade eyes faded to warm concern. He took a step towards her and Emmaline backed up a step. “My lady?”
“Oh dear,” she muttered beneath her breath. She’d read a fair number of poems and gothic novels to recognize certain telltale signs of that which ailed her. The books all indicated one’s heart would race; one would be at a loss for words, and one would forget to breath. Yes, Emmaline knew what the onslaught of symptoms she’d been besieged by indicated—she’d gone and fallen in love.
“My lady?” Lord Drake and her maid repeated in unison.
Emmaline crashed back down to reality. The first thing she became aware of was that her toes were exceedingly chilly. She glanced down into the muddy puddle her slippers now called home and wrinkled her nose. A rather odd-smelling puddle of filthy water, crushed tomatoes, cabbage, and Lord knew what else.
With the tip of her right foot, she pushed aside the stray purple leaf clinging to her other slipper.
“My lady?” Lord Drake interrupted her musings.
Her head snapped up. What did he say? Her mind tried to drag up his recent question so she might form a suitable reply.
“Just splendid.” There, that seemed like a perfectly, splendid response.
A smile pulled at the corners of his lips. “Uh, well you may find the stench of that puddle splendid but I must insist it is foul. Regardless of who is correct, might I offer you my arm?”
Emmaline wished said puddle were about five-feet-one inch deeper so she could sink beneath its surface.
She stared at his outstretched hand until her maid cleared her throat, and jerked her back to the moment. Emmaline placed her fingers in his. He tucked them into the fold of his elbow and carefully guided her away from the remnants of the cart.
“Thank you, my lord.”
That was the best I could come up with—just thank you? She grimaced and stole a peek from the corner of her eye to gauge his reaction to her less than stimulating repartee. Couldn’t she have offered some witty banter, as so many other ladies would have managed?
His expression may as well have been carved from granite.
Emmaline had never been a flirt, so she settled for honesty. “What you did for that peddler…and me, was—heroic.”
If she hadn’t raised her gaze at that precise moment, she would have missed the way his strong, square jaw tightened.
“I would hardly call it heroic, my lady.” His words sounded curiously flat.
Emmaline dug her heels in, and forced him to stop. She motioned to the sea of preoccupied lords and ladies. “Look around, my lord. Look how busy the street is. There are ladies and gentlemen rushing about, and not one of them stepped forward.”
He gently steered her ahead. “That isn’t quite true.”
Emmaline looked at him askance.
“You placed yourself between the peddler and the dandies,” he said.
“What would possess you to do something so reckless?”
An errant lock of hair escaped her chignon and fell across her eye. She blew it back, but it fell right back into place. Forgetting the recalcitrant strand, she again dug her heels in and forced him to a stop.
Emmaline looked up at Lord Drake. “What would you have had me do? Allow them to beat the poor woman?”
A growl lodged in his throat. “I would rather you hadn’t placed yourself in harm’s way.”
If he hadn’t sounded so surly about it, Emmaline would have sighed like a debutante at her first ball. Instead, “I couldn’t just let them hurt her. What kind of person would I be if I’d allowed that?”
The corner of his lips lifted ever so slightly. He motioned for Emmaline to continue walking. “A safe one.”
“Ahh, but what is safety without honor?”
He looked at a point over her shoulder. “Honor is an oftentimes overestimated word with little meaning, my lady.”
A frisson of distress traveled along Emmaline’s spine, and in spite of the unseasonable warmth of the day, gooseflesh dotted her arms. She hadn’t failed to miss the bleakness in Lord Drake’s distracted stare, and found herself, yet again, at a loss.
“Might I see you home, Lady Emmaline?”
A cowardly sense of relief that she’d been saved from replying to his previous, baleful statement assailed her. Lord Drake wanted to escort her home? Had he asked, she would have taken tea in the muddy puddle he’d rescued her from. Still, it wouldn’t do to come across as too eager. “I would be grateful, my lord.”
They walked along in silence and Emmaline mourned the passing of each block that brought her closer to home.
She caught her lower lip between her teeth and searched her mind for something to discuss. The weather…? What clever young lady would discuss something as mundane as the weather?
“Your earlier actions were brave, Lady Emmaline—and I respect them.”
She blinked. “Well, I really hadn’t been expecting that from you, my lord.”
He continued as though she hadn’t spoken. “But still foolish.”
“Now, that I expected.”
A deep laugh rumbled up from his chest. “I’ve been boorish today. Forgive me.”
“Yes, yes, I say you have,” she said, under her breath.
He raised a single brow. “I beg your pardon?”
Emmaline nodded. “Very well, since you are begging.” His brow furrowed. “I’m teasing, my lord,” she said. She shook her head. “You’ve been nothing but honorable, brave, and heroic—a true gentleman.” The effusive praise spilled from her lips with all sincerity and she willed herself to silence. Alas, she’d never been one to dissemble.
“We’ve arrived,” he said.
Emmaline shook her head, but Lord Drake gave a slight nod.
She looked up at the white finish of her brother’s townhouse and groaned.
Lord Drake’s gaze snapped to her. “Are you certain you were not injured earlier? Did you turn your ankle?”
He had a look as if he were about to draw her skirts back and peek for himself, which sent her heart sputtering wildly.
If she’d been brazen or clever, she would have feigned an injury blocks ago. But alas… “No, no. I assure you, I’m fine.”
Her brother’s aging butler pulled open the front door. Emmaline jumped, and pressed a hand to her breast. Goodness, the man could shock a ghost.
Lord Drake took a step away from her and offered a deep bow. “I am glad you were uninjured. I bid you good day, my lady.”
Without awaiting a response, he turned on his heel and continued down the street. Emmaline stared after him until his figure faded from sight, and then entered the townhouse.
She’d been betrothed to Lord Drake for fifteen years. In that time, their contact had been limited to passing greetings and letters she’d written to him—letters which she’d never bothered sending. This, could therefore, be considered the first real interaction she’d had with him…and in a heroic fashion, he’d come to her aid. Perhaps he’d been so captivated by her act of bravery, as he’d called it, that he, too, had fallen madly in love with her. Even now, he might very well be strolling down the streets, unable to formulate a coherent thought, unable to think about anything other than the sight of her.
Emmaline sniffed. “What is that smell?” She looked down and her nose scrunched at the stench clinging to her skirts. Why, he surely failed to even note the rotten fruit smattered all over her beautiful ivory gown.
Yes, she was certain Lord Drake would begin courting her.