Book 1 > A Whisper of Scandal
The Year of Our Lord 1817
Lady Gillian Rutherford was either going to faint or scream.
The chatter of the crowd roared in her ears. She blew out a frustrated breath and snapped her fan open. Whoever had been in charge of the guest list at this ball had been deep in their cups when they sent out the invitations. The guest list was too large by half.
A booted foot crushed her toes, proving her point. “Beg pardon, my lady.”
Gillian smiled at the footman as she plucked a glass of lemonade from his tray. “Think nothing of it.” Beads of sweat dripped from his forehead. Poor fellow. At least she could take refuge on the terrace in the cool breeze. Except, of course, not just yet.
As notes of music picked up in volume and somewhat drowned the hum of gossip, she glanced longingly at the open double doors. Four gazes met hers at once. She cursed herself for forgetting to avoid the stares of the pinch-faced matrons who’d been less than adept at hiding the fact that they were talking about her. Instantly, gloved hands covered whispering mouths.
She hid her snort behind her fan. If these were Society’s finest, then she would rather consort with the poor any day of the week.
This would not do. Not at all. If she stuck to this tactic of finding her prey, the ball would be over before she knew it. Why was this so difficult? She craned her neck to see around a large man in need of a good lecture on the wisdom of not over indulging in sweet meats and pies. How hard could it be to locate an American who was supposed to be a good head taller than the average Englishman?
She turned to search through the crowd once again; her effort was rewarded with a new set of stuffy matrons giving her quizzical looks. Hmm. At least she seemed to be improving in Society’s esteem since open disdain no longer lingered on their faces. She pasted on a fake smile as she scanned the lords and ladies.
Where was the blasted American? Maybe Mr. Sutherland was on the terrace. He was supposed to be brilliant, after all. Surely, a man smart enough to build a shipping empire would seek refuge from the oppressive heat in this over-stuffed room.
She didn’t need any further excuse to get fresh air. Almost giddy with the thought of escape, she swiveled toward the terrace and cringed. Blast. Her father stood directly in her path to freedom. How utterly typical.
Yet, for once, his disapproving stare was not focused on her. She followed his line of vision past her Aunt Millicent to the champagne-laden tray passing just out of his reach. Blessed be the ton and their need to display their wealth and frivolousness. Oh! And blessed be Father for being predictable, even if the predictability did include drunkenness and coldness.
She was smart enough to know when retreat was in order. She whirled on her heel and headed in the direction of the card room. If the gossip sheets were correct, Mr. Sutherland could very well be in the gaming room. Three steps into her flight she stopped in her charge and ground her teeth on the terrible words she wanted to say.
Of all the ill luck. Harrison Mallorian lounged against the very statue she would have to pass to get to the card room. He brushed a lock of his white-blond hair out of his eyes and lifted his hawk-like nose as he spoke to the glazed-eyed gentleman who stood beside him. Luckily, he did not see her yet.
Mr. Mallorian, with his lecherous gaze and roaming hands, was the last person she wanted to encounter. She’d barely escaped being accosted by him the last time she encountered him in the village, and she’d overheard gossip by the maids that a tavern wench had not been so lucky.
Gillian’s stomach rolled at the thought. She’d seen the wench just last week, heavy with child and no husband. But Mr. Mallorian roamed around without repercussions. The maids said there was no proof, but it was more than a lack of witnesses. The wench was lower than a commoner, so her word would never stand against Mr. Mallorian’s.
Between her father and Mr. Mallorian she was trapped in this room with no escape. Except… She studied the dark corner where long red velvet curtains covered a window and formed a crimson puddle on the floor. It was the perfect place to hide until they moved to another room.
She shouldn’t. It was scandalous. The very idea that she was worried about her name being associated with scandal made her giggle. Thank goodness, a young fop was now entertaining the staring matrons, so they had forgotten her for this moment. She’d hate to add suspicions of lunacy to the taint associated with murder on her first day back in Society.
She moved toward the shadowy alcove with a glance to see if anyone had observed her. For the moment, no one gawked. Taking a deep breath, she scurried into the dusty darkness.
Her heavy breathing filled the cramped space. How was it possible that it was hotter in here? What if she swooned and fell into the crowd? Father really wouldn’t like that. The ton would be ablaze with talk about the Duke of Death’s odd daughter who hid behind curtains at balls. She could picture the next ball. Gone would be the attempts at hushed whispers and sideways glances.
She and her sister would be laughed right out of the ballroom. Gillian cared little for herself, except it would make meeting Mr. Sutherland extremely hard. But to imagine Whitney being ostracized made Gillian ache. She gulped down her lemonade and groaned. Men had to have had a hand in the latest fashion. No woman would have designed so many layers. The silk suffocated her. Her chemise already clung to her damp skin. She rubbed her temples. Some escape plan this was. She glared at the corner that confined her.
Breathing seemed to be harder behind the curtains. She reached to part the heavy material, but the velvet suddenly opened, and light from the ballroom split the darkness. A man plunged into the alcove and yanked the curtain closed behind him. She drew in a sharp breath as a warm hand clamped over her mouth.
“No need to scream,” a baritone that promised nothing but trouble ordered. “I assure you I mean you no harm.”
She pushed his hand away. “I feel completely better now. I bet all murderers assure their victims the same thing before slitting their throats.”
“Well, if I was going to kill you, which I’m not, I certainly wouldn’t do it in the middle of a ball, and I would kill you with pleasure.”
She frowned at the odd statement. “Fine. I won’t scream, and you may go.”
“I’m sorry,” the man said in a voice that indicated he was anything but. “I didn’t realize you owned this curtain.”
“You’re funny. Run along and display your wit for a debutante that cares.”
“Interesting twist,” he said with a laugh.
“I beg your pardon?” She tried to instill a frosty note of warning into her tone.
“Don’t worry, kitten. I want to play. You’re the innocent and I’m the pursuer, right?” He grasped her gloved hand. “I bet you get a hundred marriage proposals this season with that sweet disposition.”
She jerked her hand away. “I don’t need a hundred.” Insufferable man. He’d irritated her into saying too much.
When his fingers gently glided over her waist, she jerked away and pressed as far against the window ledge as she could manage.
“I like your commitment to the ruse.” Husky tones vibrated his voice. “Got one special fellow in mind, do you?”
Thank God, it was too dark in here for this man to see her face. Her cheeks burned from the blood gathering under her skin. “You’re not very astute, sir.”
“Is he meeting you in here?” His deep chuckle filled the space at the same moment he brushed her hair back from her face.
“Stop that!” She slapped at his fingers, but he didn’t release his hold on her hair. The grind of the strands between his fingers grated in her ears.
“Good God,” he whispered. “I’m sorry. I thought you were someone else.”
“And my hair alerted you to your mistake?” Gillian allowed disbelief to color her words.
“She has short hair,” he ground out. “It was an honest mistake. I must have the wrong curtain.”
Likely story. Still, what was the point of arguing? Men of the ton were lecherous creatures, and this man had just proven what she had learned years ago. “I’m glad we’ve cleared things up. If you would be so kind as to quickly leave the way you came.”
“I’ll be gone as soon as I can. I can’t just barge back out there.”
“Worried about your reputation?”
Hands came on either side of her waist; his warm breath caressed her cheek. “No. I’m worried about the marriage noose.”
With the shock of being so close to this man, it took a moment for her brain to register what he said. When she did, she tried to shove him away, but her hand met corded steel. He was certainly no dandy. And clearly trouble. Trouble, she already had plenty of. “You have no worries from me. I don’t want to marry you any more than you want to marry me.”
He chuckled, low and deep. “I’m relieved.”
“Lovely. Now off you go.”
His hands came to cup her face, shocking her with their warmth. Smooth fingertips touched her eyelids, her cheeks, and stopped on her lips. Her heart hammered in her ears. His fingers brushed over her mouth once before her senses crashed back into reality, and she smacked his hands away.
“What are you doing?”
“Making sure I don’t know you. Are you sure you aren’t following me?”
“How could I be following you? I was here first, you pompous—”
A finger pressed against her lips. “Ladies don’t curse.”
She brushed his fingers aside. “And gentlemen take their leave when asked.”
“Good point,” he replied and split the curtain once again. Light washed over his back and head, revealing thick black hair and outlining broad shoulders. The curtain dropped back into place and covered him in darkness once again.
“My lady,” he murmured, stepping toward her until his breath washed over her face once again. He smelled of whiskey and cigars. That figured. Strange it didn’t repel her as it did when her father or one of his drunken friends forced her to endure conversation with them.
Before she could say anything, the stranger grasped her gloved hand and whisked the shield of material away. His mouth touched her skin, hot and searing. As his lips left a feathery kiss, her world tilted and her breath exhaled in a slow hiss. “It was a pleasure to meet you. I’d wish you luck in the marriage hunt, but—”
“You don’t believe in luck,” Gillian interrupted.
“Wrong. I don’t believe you need it.”
He was gone before she could reply. She pressed a hand to her pounding heart. Typical English scoundrel. She took a breath and focused on what she needed to do. A quick peek between the curtains let her know all was safe. She scurried out of the darkness with her lemonade glass still clutched in her hand.
As a butler passed, she stopped him and set the glass on the tray. She ran a self-conscious hand through her hair. She needed to regain her confidence and find Mr. Sutherland. She glanced around, searching for him. But her search stopped at the sight of a man who stood to the side of the terrace doors.
He had jet-black hair and broad shoulders. Something fluttered in her stomach. Was that the stranger from the curtains? His wink and smug smile left little doubt. Dressed head to toe in black save his shirt and untied snowy white cravat that hung negligently from his neck, he appeared every bit as dangerous as he had sounded behind the curtain.
He possessed a rugged beauty with his bronze skin, untamed curls, and coat cut expertly to mold across the broad expanse of his shoulders. Her pulse hummed in remembrance of the muscles hidden beneath the coat.
He faced her, his eyes crinkling with amusement. Raising his champagne in the air, he saluted her and then downed the drink. He bowed in her direction, his gaze never wavering from her face. When he smiled, her lips pulled into a reluctant grin at his show.
No doubt, he’d practiced that smile on at least a hundred debutantes. He cocked his head to the side, as if he knew her thoughts, before starting across the room.
Was he going to find the woman he had been intending to meet behind a curtain? She glanced around the ballroom. There were at least a dozen windows with similar treatments. Good luck to him and the poor woman whose heart he would undoubtedly break.
Gillian turned to make her way around the edge of the ballroom to the terrace, but her gaze traveled back to him. He had stopped in the center of the room and stood speaking with a flame-haired woman who gripped his arm. Was she the woman he’d been searching for? She did have short hair. She was pretty in a cold sort of way, like a lovely bauble that was good for nothing but admiring for its beauty. Gillian gave herself a mental shake. It wouldn’t do to be petty and judgmental.
The man’s beautiful face became dark and fierce. He reached for the woman’s hand, his irritation evident in the way he pried her fingers away. A reticent smile touched his lips as he executed a perfect bow to the red-haired woman, winked at Gillian and turned on his heel, making his way quickly through the crowd and disappearing through the terrace doors.
Well, she certainly could not search the terrace now. The stranger seemed just pompous enough to think she really was following him. She had wasted enough time standing here watching him like a fool. Time she had no right to waste.
She wove among guests, smiling as if she hadn’t a care in the world. No one stopped her to introduce themselves, but then she hadn’t been under any false assumption she, her sister, or her father would be warmly welcomed back into the bosom of the ton.
They may have lived as recluses for eleven years, but it had taken less than a minute to realize the ton had not forgotten the scandal or the speculation that Gillian’s father had killed her mother. The four looks of disdain had been her first clue. And the two direct cuts and two silly debutantes who had stared in wide-eyed fear at her and her family had confirmed her suspicion. Whoever had sent the note threatening to expose her sister’s role in their mother’s death was not the only one who clearly remembered the past. Hopefully, the villain would be the only one trying to use it to keep them out of Society.
That was what he or she—after all the villain could be a villainess—wanted. The note had said so. Don’t return to Society or I will expose your sister. The villain had to be someone who knew them—or Father, to be more precise, since he had surprised everyone by announcing two weeks ago he planned for them to return to Society. Or the villain could be one of the staff.
She ground her teeth. She’d been through all this already. Whoever the villain was, and whatever the reason the fiend wanted her family to stay recluses in the country, the person was a complete dolt. She had no control over her father. She had begged, pleaded, even conjured up tears, but Father had been resolute in his decision to drag them all back into the ton. Not even the threatening letter had swayed him. For a moment, she thought she’d convinced him, but then he’d gone and shocked her.
Father and his counterattack plans. Her head ached just thinking about his plan to marry her and Whitney off as quickly as possible, so if a new scandal did break they would already be wed.
Gillian neared the edge of the ballroom and paused when she spotted her sister standing to the left of the door in a row of forlorn-looking young women. Father was a bigger dolt than whoever was threatening them. No Englishman was going to offer for her or Whitney. Let alone dance with them. She crumpled her empty dance card into a small wad. The starchy lot of Englishmen would be far too worried marriage to the daughters of a man suspected of murder would taint their bloodlines with some unseen insanity. And if the men weren’t worried, their mothers would certainly be concerned enough to not allow any such match.
Gillian gazed across the faces of the women who composed the line of wallflowers. The proof of her belief was in the line of beautiful women. Nothing was wrong with their looks. One of them had a drunkard for a father. One had a brother with a gambling problem. One had a sister who had lowered herself by marrying outside of the ton. And Lady Emma’s father was a merchant. The horror! Her heart twisted when she got to Whitney.
She raised her hand and waved to get Whitney’s attention. Her face lit up when her eyes met Gillian’s. She rushed away from the other women with a backward glance. Gillian braced herself against displaying her worries or concerns. Whitney was blissfully unaware of the threatening note, and if Gillian could help it, her sister would remain unharmed by the foolish notions of the ton.
Whitney reached Gillian within seconds and clutched her arm. “Have you been dancing?”
Gillian fingered the crumpled dance card in her hand. “No. More importantly, have you?”
“Not yet.” Whitney bit her lip. “Do you think it’s this dress?”
She eyed her sister’s white lacy confection. She looked perfect, like innocence on the verge of allure. Not the dress, for certain. It was their name, and it always would be. “You look lovely.”
“If I look lovely, why not one request for a dance?”
“Because you are so breathtaking they are afraid to approach you,” she assured Whitney. Finding their aunt was a priority. Surely she had enough sway to get at least one gentleman to dance with Whitney. Gillian wanted to skin all Englishmen. If she’d had any doubts about meeting and seducing Mr. Sutherland, they evaporated as Whitney’s eyes filled with tears.
“Don’t cry like a goose. I had no idea you pined to dance so.”
Whitney sniffed and dried her eyes. “Don’t you?”
The only thing she pined for was a one-way ticket out of England for herself and Whitney. If a dance could reduce her sister to tears, what would social ruination and the ugly truth do to her? She smiled indulgently. “Of course, I pine to dance,” she lied.
“Gillie, there’s a cross-looking woman headed towards us.”
Gillian quickly turned and faced the crowd behind her. The redhead who’d been talking to the pompous Englishman stalked toward her. By the twisted look on the woman’s face, her temper matched the color of her hair.
Gillian gave Whitney a little shove toward the refreshment table. “I’m feeling faint. Will you get me some lemonade?”
“I knew you were acting odd. I’ll be right back.” At least Whitney would be safe from the taint of a scene if it came to that. Surely the woman didn’t think Gillian had set her cap on the Englishman.
The woman stopped directly in front of Gillian, spearing her with a slanted green gaze. “I thought I recognized you. You can’t imagine the gossip your family’s reappearance into Society has caused.”
She could imagine quite a lot of things at this moment, but none of them were very ladylike. She pasted a smile on her face, though she doubted she looked friendly. “I’m afraid you have me at a disadvantage, as you know me, but I do not know you.”
“I’m Lady Staunton. You no doubt recognize my name.”
“I’m afraid not. But I haven’t been in Society in a very long time. I am surprised, though, that the ton so lacks for entertainment they are reduced to speculating about age-old rumors regarding my family.” That she professed the lie without so much as a quiver in her voice was an immense relief.
Lady Staunton smiled falsely. “But the mystery was never solved, now, was it? So the rumors are still delicious, and I hear you’ve the exact look of your mother. I’ve seen for myself you have her wandering eye.”
So this was about the man. Blast him. She should have known he would cause her trouble. “I’m not sure what you mean,” she said while she cursed Lord Pain in the Neck in her mind.
Lady Staunton gave Gillian a look that said they both knew Gillian was lying. “You should not stare at every handsome man you see, my dear.”
“I only return the stares I receive, Lady Staunton. Now, if you will pardon me. I think I see my father beckoning me.”
“I can see you’re in need of some friendly advice,” Lady Staunton said as she gripped Gillian’s arm.
Beads of sweat dripped down Gillian’s back. She eyed the gaggle of men and women who had stopped talking to gape at her and Lady Staunton. She could make a scene, but that would serve no purpose and would undoubtedly make matters worse for her family. “I’m all ears, Lady Staunton. I never turn down advice from my elders.” Gillian smiled sweetly as she delivered the pointed barb.
Lady Staunton’s lip curled back most unbecomingly. “Stay away from Alex.”
“Don’t play innocent with me,” Lady Staunton snapped. “I saw him raise his champagne glass to you. Bow to you.”
Gillian ground her teeth on a growl of frustration. It was just like a man to cause trouble and disappear. A black head flashed up ahead just as a man slipped through the wide doors that led to the entrance hall. That thick, wavy black hair was unmistakable. “Lady Staunton,” Gillian said, struck with inspiration, “I have no interest in the man you are referring to, but if you wish to pursue him, I believe I just saw him rushing out of the ballroom toward the entrance hall.”
Lady Staunton turned and fled before Gillian could answer her question. Gillian breathed out a shaky sigh of relief. Finally, she could search for Mr. Sutherland. She turned on her heel and nearly toppled into her fiercely frowning father.