Scoundrel and the Lady excerpt

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Taken from Chapter One…

London, 1851

Lady Iris Bennington adjusted the strap of her parasol so that it hung loosely from her right wrist. Today was important. She had been waiting for this opportunity since joining the Ladies of Virtue three years before: the day when she could become instructor to a new member. The new recruit walked next to Iris, matching her every step. Millicent Harris had an impeccable reputation and an eye for detail; so it was that she had been invited into the ranks of the Ladies of Virtue.

To those outside of their elite group, they seemed nothing more than a group of ladies providing funds to the needy. In truth, they did far more. Lady Somsersby saw to it that all her ladies were well trained in the art of personal protection, as she herself had been years before while she’d worked undercover, posing as Queen Victoria. Their training proved useful in putting a stop to pesky crime inundating their London streets. Iris had become quite accomplished at stopping pickpockets. And they did all this while maintaining their own personal reputations.

“We are to simply walk normally as if we were doing nothing more than shopping with the rest of the people?” Millie asked.

“Precisely,” Iris said. “An opportunity does not present itself on every outing, thank goodness. Though, the number of times I intercept a would-be criminal on any sort of errand might surprise you. Somedays it seems we are inundated with them.”

“What if we cannot resolve the problem without making a scene? Then, are we to do nothing?”

“Of course not! No, in any situation like that, we discreetly try to learn the identity of the people involved. Sometimes a great deal of work goes into managing a particular situation. Lady Somersby plans many of those endeavors herself.”

“What kinds of endeavors?”

“Many things. For example, several of our ladies have assisted in rehabilitating some street girls and training them to be scullery maids. Along those lines, we have stepped in when there has been a household particularly cruel to their servants. Workhouse conditions, factory conditions—we work for the betterment of our society as a whole.”

“And try to right any wrongs we come upon?” Millie asked.

“Precisely.”

“And if we are unable to do things in a quiet manner?” Millie asked.

“Lady Somersby has contacts who can take care of most situations that might bring into question one of our member’s reputations,” Iris said.

Millie smiled widely, showing off her rather large teeth. “I hope you will not believe me too eager or silly if I admit that I am so very excited about joining your ranks.”

Iris saw a suspicious man out of the corner of her eye, and she positioned herself to be closer to him. He circled behind Millie, but the girl seemed not to notice as she continued chatting about the thrill. Iris reached up to her hat and swiftly removed a hatpin. In one movement, she had stabbed it into the man’s thigh.

“If you scream, everyone here will know what you’ve done,” she whispered as she walked behind him. “Hand me the jewels, and no one will be the wiser.”

His eyes bulged in pain, and he gripped his thigh. Blood began to spot his trousers around her bejeweled pin. He handed her the two items.

“I suggest you take your leave. Perhaps gainful employment would be a better idea,” she said.

The man eyed her warily, then turned and slipped into the crowd.

He’d likely return, but he was finished for the day, which meant that Iris had done her job.

She moved back to Millie, who was still talking, but now staring at a lovely hat in the milliner’s shop window.

“That’s very pretty,” Iris said. “Here.” She held out the bracelet that the man had swiped from Millie’s wrist.

Millie accepted the bracelet. She shook her head, then her mouth fell open.

“I’ll be one moment.” Iris walked away. “Lady Glenwood,” she called out.

The matron stopped and turned.

“I do apologize for heckling to you on the street, my lady,” Iris said as she reached the older woman. “I believe you dropped this.” She held out a necklace clustered with rubies and diamonds.

Lady Glenwood’s gloved hand went to her throat, then she smiled. “Thank you, my dear. I had not even noticed it was gone.”

“Yes, well, I am glad I found it for you. You might want to get the clasp checked,” Iris said.

“Indeed, I might. Thank you again.”

“’Tis my pleasure.” Iris gave a slight curtsey, then she maneuvered through the crowd back to Millie.

“I never even saw anything happen,” Millie said.

“Yes, it is difficult at first to notice.”

“Who was it?”

“A petty thief, merely a pickpocket. I’m glad that I discovered him before he had an opportunity to take any other pieces. It can get challenging to try to return items to people if you aren’t certain to whom they belong.”

“That is amazing,” Millie said. “You are amazing!”

Iris felt herself grow warm with a blush. “I have been doing this a while.” But she was good at this task. She’d personally taken down more thieves than any of the other members of the Ladies of Virtue. She was accomplished, and she could not deny it was extremely gratifying.

“I’m not certain I can ever do this,” Millie said.

“Ah, you can. It takes time and training. I was once where you are now.”

###

The rest of Iris’s day had gone as well as her afternoon on Bond Street. She’d had a lovely dinner at her friend Harriet’s house. The Duke of Lockwood had the best chef in London, so the food there was always a treat. Then Iris had gone home eager to see her brother, Jasper. He had been back from Eton for less than three months, and she still reveled in his presence.

It had been just the two of them for the better part of a decade now, and she’d missed him desperately while he was away at school. But now he was in London with her for good.

Except he wasn’t home. At least, not yet. She concentrated on documenting the incident with the thief she’d interrupted on Bond Street, describing his appearance and the pieces he’d taken. This particular step had never been required by Lady Somersby. Still, Iris preferred to have a record.

She glanced at the clock on the mantle again and noted yet another hour had passed with no sign of her brother. Reading hadn’t helped, as she couldn’t keep her mind on the words on the page. Instead, she’d contemplated every wretched thing that could happen to Jasper out on the streets of London. Yes, he was considered a man now, but at only ten and eight, he still seemed a boy to her. Her baby brother.

Though it was customary to send boys to school starting at age ten, Iris had felt that Jasper was likely still grieving their father’s death. And then their mother had died, and Iris had kept Jasper at home for another three years. She’d provided him with the very best private tutors, but he’d hated being at home when the other boys his age were already away at school. Their situation had been unique, though. Not everyone understood that, but she knew her brother best. He had needed the support of being at home. Needed the structure that only she had been able to provide. It was what had gotten them both through their grief.

She stood and left the parlor and made her way to his study. He did not use it overly much, since she still managed all the household books, but it was his study, so she’d always made do with the front parlor. His desk, the same their father had used until his death. She smoothed her fingers along the carved wood on the facing of the desk, wondering how much Jasper remembered of their parents. He never spoke of them, and she never asked.

Several pieces of mail, mostly invitations, littered the top of the desk. In the center sat the most recent edition of the Daily Scandal.

She came around the desk and sat, cracking the paper open. Had her brother been reading this rag? Perhaps no one had informed Jasper that believing such gossip would not assist him in fitting into Society. It would only hinder his relationships if he chose to believe such slander.

Of course, she had always been curious about this newspaper. She had heard others speak of it and the delicious stories found within its pages. But she’d been leery of it, considering gossip caused undue scandals and heartache. She saw it every year during the Season.

She set down the newspaper then picked it back up.

Curiosity got the better of her, and she glanced down at the printed words. No one could force her to believe or spread anything she read within the pages. There was no harm in reading a little. She had, of course, seen a few issues at Harriet’s house because her friend’s mother was a devout reader. Iris, however, clung to the advice her mother had given her shortly before what was to have been her debut; gossip is hurtful and a waste of words. That debut had been canceled when her father had died abruptly, but the advice still survived. But reading a paper hardly constituted gossiping, as long as she didn’t repeat anything she read.

She turned the page. The top of the right-hand column read in bold letters:

HOW TO BE A GENTLEMAN: our continued series

Jasper had evidently read the article with interest as he’d made some notes in the margin and underlined a few passages. One passage in particular caught her attention.

 

A true gentleman knows that he is worth more than bank balance. It is far more important that other people see him as bold and daring. In this regard, gambling is the perfect pastime for a gentleman. What is a family fortune lost, if a man can gain a reputation as a debonair risk-taker?

 

She read eagerly, then her heart sank. This couldn’t possibly be legitimate advice.

Continued series…

That meant there were more articles like this. She shopped the top drawer and found nothing but blank parchment and inkbottles. The drawer to her right proved most helpful, though, as she opened it to discover a collection of the Daily Scandal. And just as she’d found in the first, Jasper had read all the previous installments, making notes on every one of them. They dated back five months, from before he’d returned from Eton. He’d obviously been reading this ridiculous advice since then, which likely explained his behavior—the way he’d been staying out too late, drinking too much, and doing whatever other wretched things he thought would make him a man.

 

A true gentleman is impeccably dressed. Having a line of credit at London’s finest shops can definitely make the man. Build your reputation first, and worry about your fortune tomorrow, for it is better to look the part and garner the best invitations than to sit home alone counting one’s coins.

 

She read through her brother’s handwritten notes, and her stomach soured. How could he find worth in advice such as how to gamble without losing the family estate, how to drink, the proper way to seduce a woman… It was inconceivable that someone would publish such reckless counsel, which could quite obviously lead an impressionable young man into a life of debauchery. As was the case with her brother, no doubt. Well, she’d have to put a stop to this immediately.

A loud thud stuttered through the house as someone slammed the heavy front door.

Jasper.

She debated whether she should search him out and confront him for coming home so late in the evening or wait until morning to do so. What if he was late because he’d been injured? In a fight? Or rescuing someone in need? Oh good heavens, she need only go and find out why he was so late.

Iris rushed out of the room and nearly ran smack into her brother.

“Jasper, you are safe.”

“Of course, I’m safe.” His voice sounded no different than it normally did, but when she took in the full sight of him, she knew he was inebriated. His familiar green eyes, so much like her own, were now heavy-lidded and glassy, and he seemed unable to focus on her.

“Have you been drinking?” she asked.

He put a hand to his chest and made a weak attempt to appear affronted. “Me? No.”

“I am no fool, Jasper. I can smell it on you.”

“Oh, well, in that case, yes, I’ve had several drinks.”

“I’m so glad you find this amusing,” she said.

He smiled broadly.

“I do not. I was worried. Did you even consider that? Where were you until so late in the evening?”

“Black’s. Playing a bit of cards.”

“Drinking as well as gambling?”

He frowned. “Perhaps I was. It is what men do, Iris. You need not sound so disapproving.”

She opened her mouth to speak, then stopped. Arguing with him or chastising him now would do her no good at all so, instead, she took two deep breaths. She needed him alert and sober so that he could see reason. Tomorrow would be soon enough to confront him, but the fact was she’d been ignoring this for far too long. In the three months he’d been home, she’d seen a stark change in his behavior. This was not how she raised him, not how she taught him to be. Those foolish articles were ruining him, and she would not stand for it.

“Come now,” she said as she grabbed his elbow and nudged him forward. “I’ll help you upstairs, and we can talk in the morning after you’ve slept.”

He muttered something she didn’t quite catch.

At his bedchamber door, she handed him off to his more than capable valet. Then she made her way to her own bedchamber, all the while pondering how she could be so accomplished in her duties as a member of the Ladies of Virtue, yet remain hopeless when it came to her own personal life. She might be destined to die a boring old spinster, but she’d be damned if she’d allow her brother to ruin his life.

***

Merritt Steele, Earl of Ashby, surveyed the ballroom with disdain. He was so bloody tired of the monotony. Everyone looked the same, spoke of the same ridiculous things at every single party. Were it not that his job demanded it, he would most assuredly never attend these ridiculous balls.

“Another fantastic article,” one gentleman said as he walked past. He popped Merritt on the back as he went. Merritt was certain the man had a title, but he had no notion of what it might be. The man, obviously, was inconsequential enough not to have sullied himself with any scandals, else Merritt would know his name. It was a matter of time. They all disgraced themselves eventually; it was in their nature. He simply waited around to write about their ruination and profit from it greatly. Ten months earlier, when he’d first acquired the Ashby earldom, he’d been furious to have to sully his honor with the banner of a title. Since then, though, he’d discovered that being an earl enabled him to get inside places his previous fortune never afforded him.

Merritt walked to the side of the ballroom with the refreshment table. This area often yielded some tidbits of gossip, and considering the number of women flocking around the champagne fountain, the evening looked as if it had potential. He hoped.

He had been standing there for no more than a quarter of an hour when an acquaintance approached him, accompanied by a lithe figure dressed in a green gown. The woman’s hair was so red that it was, in fact, quite orange, but it was piled artfully atop her head, accenting the graceful line of her neck.

“Lord Ashby, I do hope you remember me. I am Lord Christopher Watkins, Lord Darby’s son.”

“Ah yes, I believe we’ve met on several occasions,” Merritt said. Christopher hadn’t yet made a scandal of himself, and Merritt had found himself nearly liking the fellow on the occasions when their paths had crossed.

“Excellent. Yes, well, I wanted to introduce you to my dear friend Lady Iris Bennington.”

She curtseyed then looked him square in the face—no shyness to be found, merely a bold stare with her bright green eyes meeting his.

“My lord, it is a pleasure.”

“Indeed,” Merritt said. Well, who was he to say that nothing interesting was going to happen tonight.

“I do believe I have several dances still available if his lordship is interested,” she said.

And the boldness continued. Fascinating. She certainly wasn’t a widow looking for a new lover. No, this was a virginal miss who had quite obviously garnered an invitation to meet him. It wasn’t the first time that had happened. He was, after all, an eligible bachelor with a huge fortune that many women would be pleased as punch to marry. But he’d never had one so audacious, and he admitted he was curious.

As he reached for the dance card dangling from her wrist, his finger brushed the naked skin above her glove, that sweet spot right at the pulse of her wrist. He held the card up so he could see.

“It appears that you have your last waltz available.” He didn’t bother asking; he merely scrawled his name to her card. “I look forward to it. Now, if you will excuse me.” He held his glass of champagne up in a toast, then walked away.

His presence at these events always caused talk, everyone wanting to know if he had any gossip to share, and it tended to have a stifling effect on some as they pretended to be on their best behavior out of fear he’d put them in his next article. He had danced with other women on very rare occasions—rare enough to draw attention to himself and his partner. Perhaps that was what Lady Iris was seeking.

Before their dance, he had to know more about the woman. Unfortunately, she proved to have no rumors or gossip attached to her name at all. In fact, her reputation appeared to be rather spotless. No one he spoke to had anything bad to say about her. A sure sign that she was trouble.

By the time their dance came, he had learned nothing about her other than the fact that she was well-off, well established in Society, and was liked by nearly everyone.

None of which explained why she wanted to talk to him.

If he were a different kind of man, he would try to coerce the information he wanted out of her using more subtle means. But that wasn’t his style. Instead, the moment they were dancing, he came out and asked her directly. “Tell me, Lady Iris, why is it that you wanted so desperately to meet me?”

Her green eyes widened. “I never said—”

“There is no need for pretense, my dear. Women clamor for introductions to me quite often.” He suspected most did so to stay in his favor, and keep their names and would-be scandals out of his newspaper. “Now, it is my time to assess your motive. Care to enlighten me?”

For a moment, she said nothing. Her steps did not falter as he swept her through the ballroom. She was quite graceful. But her mouth opened and then closed wordlessly, and everything about her face tightened with annoyance.

“Now see here, Lord Ashby. I merely wanted to have a conversation with you.”

“A conversation.” He raised a brow in a challenge. “Very well, let’s have it. What is that you and I, strangers until this moment, so desperately need to discuss?”

***

She’d told her friends earlier when they’d been getting ready for the ball all about the disturbing discovery she’d made the evening before in Jasper’s desk. They’d been supportive of her intention to confront Lord Ashby about his ridiculous and harmful articles. Agnes had even offered up her brother, Christopher, to arrange the introduction.

“You are the editor of the ‘How to be a Gentleman’ articles, are you not?”

The muscles in his jaw quirked. “I am. I edit the entire paper, actually,” he said, arrogance dripping from each word.

“Do you not think that giving such advice is potentially dangerous to young men looking for the wisdom of an older, more worldly man?”

“Not at all.” He spun her on the floor, waltzing as effortlessly as if he had been doing it his entire life. “On the contrary, I think it prepares men for what it’s like to live and prosper in London today.”

That was not what had happened to her obviously impressionable brother. “I have it on good authority that your…advice has proven detrimental to some younger gentlemen.”

“Indeed?”

“Yes, one such man has been staying out until the late hours of the night, drinking too much, gambling, and basically living the life of a wastrel. Certainly, that is not the life of a purported gentleman.”

He chuckled, a deep hearty laugh that did funny things to her stomach. “My dear lady, why is it that you’ve concerned yourself with this matter? Is the gentleman in question your suitor?”

“Heavens, no. I am far too old for a suitor. He is my brother,” she said indignantly.

“I see. And you believe that I’m corrupting him by printing those articles?”

“I do.”

“And have you, yourself, read the articles?”

“I do not peruse your paper ordinarily, but upon discovering them in my brother’s desk, I did, in fact, read every horrific word of them.” She angled her chin up. “But were it not for those special circumstances, I would not have even glanced over it, as the material is not for ladies.”

“I see.”

She was annoyed that she noticed how handsome he was. Piercing blue eyes and a charming smile—and why did anyone require a jawline that chiseled? It was completely unnecessary and served no purpose except to draw one’s eyes to the perfect sculpture of his face.

“So, what would you have me do about it?” he asked.

“Print a retraction, an apology for such advice, and discontinue the series.”

His brows rose. “I cannot do that.”

His response wasn’t surprising. She wouldn’t have expected him to comply based on her meager request. “Why not?”

“Because I happen to be proud of every word in my paper. We go to great lengths to ensure the accuracy of our material.”

“Despite the damage it causes?”

“We report the scandals, my dear lady. We do not cause them.”

“You are far too proud,” she said.

“Perhaps, but with good reason. My paper has an impeccable reputation and the highest circulation numbers in the city.”

She sucked in a breath, surprised at his pure hubris. “You are an infuriating man.”

“And you are a nosy and outspoken woman.”

Her mouth fell open. She’d never been talked to in such a manner. Further proof that Lord Ashby was no gentleman, despite his title. “Good evening,” she said and turned on her heel and walked off. She quickly found Harriet and the others at the edge of the ballroom.

“How did it go? I saw you dancing with him,” Harriet said.

Iris felt a frown weigh down her brow. “He is the most arrogant, rude man I have ever met.”

“Which means he wasn’t too keen on removing the articles?” Agnes asked.

“No. Evidently he believes it is perfectly acceptable to spread his vile advice all around London, teaching young men, my brother included, his wretched ways.” She briefly wondered if that was what had made her so angry, or if it was what he’d said about her. It mattered not.

Harriet linked arms with her. “You mustn’t give up so easily, Iris. Perseverance is what we, the Ladies of Virtue, are all about. You shall be triumphant.”

But Iris wasn’t so certain. It would have been far easier to simply stab Lord Ashby with her hatpin and leave him bleeding on the ballroom floor.

 

Copyright © 2017. Robyn DeHart. All Rights Reserved.


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