Improper ladies, p.1

Improper Ladies, page 1

 

Improper Ladies
 



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Improper Ladies


  Table of Contents

  Title Page

  Copyright Page

  The Golden Feather

  Prologue

  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Chapter Nine

  Chapter Ten

  Chapter Eleven

  Chapter Twelve

  Chapter Thirteen

  Chapter Fourteen

  Chapter Fifteen

  Chapter Sixteen

  Chapter Seventeen

  Chapter Eighteen

  Chapter Nineteen

  Chapter Twenty

  Chapter Twenty-One

  Chapter Twenty-Two

  Epilogue

  The Rules of Love

  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Thee

  Chapter Pour

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Chapter Nine

  Chapter Ten

  Chapter Eleven

  Chapter Twelve

  Chapter Thirteen

  Chapter fourteen

  Chapter Tifteen

  Chapter Sixteen

  Chapter Seventeen

  Chapter Eighteen

  Chapter Nineteen

  Chapter twenty

  Chapter Twenty-one

  Teaser chapter

  Praise for the Romances of Amanda McCabe

  “Flawlessly crafted historical romance.”

  —Chicago Tribune

  “An enthralling spell of tender romance with a hint of danger, set against the glittering backdrop of Regency London.”

  —Diane Farr

  “[A] terrific book that kept me engrossed the entire time! A real winner.”

  —Huntress Book Reviews

  “Amanda McCabe has been delighting readers since her debut, and this sweetly engaging tale doesn’t disappoint. She has a talent for bringing ordinary characters into soft focus and making us want the best for them.”

  —Romantic Times

  “McCabe is a welcome addition to the ranks of Regency authors. She creates well-developed characters, both primary and secondary. She re-creates the world of Regency society with a sure hand. She provides a sweet and moving romance.”

  —The Romance Reader

  “Charming [and] deftly humorous.”

  —Romance Reviews Today (A Perfect 10)

  Other Regency Romances

  by Amanda McCabe

  Available from Signet Eclipse

  Spirited Brides (One Touch of Magic and A Loving Spirit)

  Scandalous Brides (Scandal in Venice and The Spanish Bride)

  Rogue Grooms (Lady Rogue and The Star of India)

  SIGNET ECLIPSE

  Published by New American Library, a division of

  Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street,

  New York, New York 10014, USA

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  Penguin Books Ltd., Registered Offices:

  80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

  Published by Signet Eclipse, an imprint of New American Library, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. The Golden Feather and The Rules of Love were previously published in Signet editions.

  First Signet Eclipse Printing (Double Edition), September 2010

  The Golden Feather copyright © Ammanda McCabe, 2002

  The Rules of Love copyright © Ammanda McCabe, 2004

  Excerpt from The Spanish Bride copyright © Ammanda McCabe, 2001

  All rights reserved

  eISBN : 978-1-101-44298-2

  SIGNET ECLIPSE and logo are trademarks of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

  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.

  PUBLISHER’S NOTE

  These are works of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

  The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party Web sites or their content.

  The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book via the Internet or via any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.

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  The Golden Feather

  In memory of my grandmother Roberta McCabe, who always said she just knew I’d be a writer someday.

  I wish you were here to see this now, Nana.

  Prologue

  London, 1810

  “Am I dead, then?” Justin Seward leaned back against the cushions of the jolting carriage and reached an unsteady hand up to touch the aching hole in his shoulder. His fingers came away a sticky red.

  “Don’t be ridiculous, man!” his friend the Honorable Freddie Reed said heartily. “It’s barely a scratch. Old Holmes could never shoot worth a farthing. We’ll have you home in a trice.”

  James Burne-Jones, who sat across from them, snickered. “You may not be dead, Justin,” he said, “but you’ll surely wish you were once your father hears of this. Remember how he shouted the last time!”

  Justin groaned again and closed his eyes tightly. Oh, yes. His father, the grand Earl of Lyndon, was sure to ring a mighty peal over him for this, Justin’s third duel in a year. After the second one, the earl had threatened any number of dire consequences if he ever heard of his son causing any more such scandals. The very walls had shaken with his wrath.

  Justin almost asked his friends to turn back around so that he could ask Holmes to finish what he started. Death was preferable to whatever awaited him at Seward House.

  He tried to stay out of trouble, truly he did. For months he had avoided all his usual haunts: the gaming hells, the clubs, the racetrack. How was he to know that Pamela Holmes, who had been sending him provocative, violet-scented letters, had a jealous husband who would be waiting when Justin showed up for their rendezvous—and who would call him out?

  Truly, trouble just seemed to seek him out, and had ever since he left Cambridge two years ago.

  Unlike his perfect older brother, Edward, Viscount Keir, who never took a step wrong.

  The carriage lurched to a halt outside Seward House. I
t looked quiet, as though all were asleep in the pale early-morning light, but Justin knew better. He knew that divine retribution awaited him in those dignified walls. He had slid neatly out of trouble a dozen times before. This time was different. This time he had used up his last, and probably best, chance.

  A deep shame washed over him, burying even the pain in his shoulder and the hot rush of temper he had felt at Holmes’s challenge. Shame was a rare emotion for Justin; it was so easy to shrug off his parents’ anger, to hurry on to the next adventure. Now he was drowning in it, in the weight of his parents’ destroyed expectations, of his own disappointment in himself.

  He had gone too far this time, and he knew it. He also knew that not even another horse race, another fight, another woman could ever take away the bitter taste of the ashes of dreams. His parents had expected so much of him, and he had let them down over and over again.

  “Here we are now, old man!” said Freddie. “Home again.”

  Richards, the butler, emerged from the house and hurried down the steps to open the carriage door. “Mr. Seward!” he cried, his eyes widening at the sight of blood. “Oh, Mr. Seward, are you badly injured, then? I shall send for the doctor at once!”

  Freddie and James seized Justin between them and lowered him to the ground. His legs buckled, and he would have fallen to the pavement if they had not hauled him upright.

  “No need for a doctor, Richards,” he managed to gasp. “It is nothing at all....”

  His voice trailed away as he looked up the steps to the open door. His mother stood there, leaning heavily against the door frame.

  Amelia, the Countess of Lyndon, had not been well for some time. Her face was pale and faded above the neck frill of her dark blue dress, and she looked as if a strong wind could carry her away at any moment. She pressed a handkerchief to her mouth.

  Standing behind her, his eyes shining with excitement, was Justin’s younger brother Harry. His older brother Edward was, as usual, off on some responsible, respectable task.

  “Justin,” his mother said softly, brokenly, “you are alive! I was so afraid for you.”

  The shame that had overtaken him in the carriage was now well nigh crippling. He was glad of his friends’ strong arms supporting him. If they did not hold him up, he feared he would fall down at his mother’s feet, weeping and begging forgiveness.

  And Harry—Harry should not be here to see this. He was far too impressionable already.

  Freddie and James helped him up the steps, trailed by the fluttering, fussing Richards. They went past Amelia and Harry and deposited Justin on one of the satin-upholstered chairs that lined the cavernous marble foyer. Then they beat a hasty retreat.

  The cowards.

  “Of course I am not dead, Mother,” he said, as she bent over him to wipe at his shoulder with the handkerchief. “Holmes is a terrible shot. And you should be in bed, asleep.”

  “How can I stay abed, when I do not know if my son is alive or dead? I had to know.”

  “Was it a good fight, Justin?” Harry broke in excitedly. “How I wish I could have been there!”

  Amelia turned a horrified gaze onto her youngest son.

  “It was very dull and stupid, Harry,” Justin muttered. “You were well away from it.”

  “No!” Harry protested. “Next time, I will be there with you, as your second....”

  “You will do no such thing, Harold,” a voice boomed across the foyer. “Do you want to be as big a dolt as your brother? I will send you away to university in Scotland first!”

  Everyone’s gaze turned to the shadows at the foot of the grand staircase. A man, tall, erect, silver haired, emerged from them into the murky light from the small windows.

  Harry’s face turned scarlet. “Sir! I only meant—”

  “I know what you meant,” the earl said. “Don’t be an ass. Take your mother back upstairs, and have her maid give her some of her medicine.”

  “I want to stay here, Walter,” Amelia said quietly.

  The earl’s face gentled as he came up to his wife and took her hand. “You know the doctor said you should not leave your bed, Amelia. The strain of all this has been too great for you. Please, my dear, go with Harold, and let Minette give you your medicine.”

  Amelia glanced uncertainly at Justin. Then, under the quiet weight of her husband’s command, she nodded and took Harry’s arm, allowing him to escort her up the stairs. She only looked back once, lingeringly.

  “Richards,” the earl said, when they had disappeared from sight, “would you be so good as to fetch Dr. Reynolds? Tell him both Lady Lyndon and Mr. Seward are in need of his services.”

  “Yes, my lord, right away.” Richards bowed, and scurried quickly away.

  Justin was left alone with his father.

  The earl sat down in the chair next to his and said very softly, “You have gone too far this time, you know, Justin.”

  Justin bowed his head. Somehow, the quiet resignation in his father’s voice was far worse than any thunder or noise. “Yes, Father. I know.”

  “I paid your debts at that dreadful gaming hell. I paid off the opera dancer who was getting so pushing. I concealed your other duels. Everyone is young and foolish once in their lives. But I cannot go on. You have brought scandal and disgrace onto the Seward name, a name that has been held in highest respect for over three hundred years.”

  Sharp tears prickled at the backs of Justin’s eyes. He blinked them away furiously. No amount of tears could cleanse the stain of his life.

  “I am through with all that, sir,” he said roughly. “I promise.”

  The earl shook his head. “That is what you told us the last time. And the time before that. I fear a change must be made.”

  A chill of foreboding shivered on Justin’s spine. “What sort of a change?”

  The earl reached inside his coat and brought out a heavily sealed, deeply official-looking document. “I have purchased you a commission. As soon as you have recovered from your wound, you will go to India, where you will serve in the regiment of my old friend, Colonel Paget.”

  India. He was being sent off to India. This was almost worse than anything he had imagined on that short but endless carriage ride. India was hot and insect-ridden and very, very far away.

  Justin nodded in resignation. It was a dismal prospect, yes, to be so far from home, but perhaps there, in such an alien land, he could bring back to his family a small portion of the honor he had lost them.

  “And that, I fear, Mrs. Aldritch, is all that is left.”

  Caroline Aldritch carefully folded her black-gloved hands in her lap and stared dispassionately across the desk at the sallow-faced attorney.

  She should feel something, she knew, at the sure knowledge that she was now destitute. Obviously, the attorney expected her to swoon, since he was clutching a bottle of smelling salts in his hand. Or perhaps the salts were for himself, since he was the one who had to deal with the complicated wreckage of her husband’s estate.

  She should have been weeping or in hysterics, or throwing a fiery tantrum at the fate that had led her to this. Instead, the numbness that held her since she had been told of Lawrence’s death still gripped her.

  All she could think was, I knew it.

  Her life with Lawrence could have ended no other way.

  “So,” she said, “after all my husband’s debts are settled, I will be left with twenty pounds. More or less.”

  “Or perhaps a bit more. If we are careful,” answered the attorney.

  Caroline nodded. Twenty pounds could keep her in their shabby lodgings a while longer, to be sure. But it would not pay for Phoebe to stay at the privileged Mrs. Medlock’s School for Young Ladies.

  At the thought of Phoebe, her sweet younger sister, emotion did stir in Caroline’s heart. Phoebe was happy at her school; her letters were always full of her lessons and outings and friends. She was meeting people there, young ladies of good family, who could serve her well in her future life. The o
nly good thing Lawrence had ever done for Caroline in their marriage was to pay for Phoebe’s schooling after their parents died, though heaven only knew how he did it.

  There had to be a way to keep her there, to pay for a fine come-out one day. There had to be. Caroline would not see Phoebe end up as she had.

  She stood abruptly, the folds of her black bombazine dress rustling around her. “Thank you,” she said. “You have been very helpful.”

  The attorney walked with her to the door. “If there is anything else I can do, Mrs. Aldritch, please do not hesitate to call on me.”

  “I won’t. Good day.”

  Caroline stepped out onto the pavement, shading her eyes against the sudden glare of sunlight. It was not a particularly bright day, but after the gloom of the office it seemed almost tropical. She lowered the veil of her bonnet and looked about for a hansom cab.

  Then she remembered the pitifully few coins left in her reticule and decided to walk.

  She was very nearly to the rooming house where she and Lawrence had their lodgings when she heard a voice, a man’s voice, call out, “Mrs. Aldritch! Mrs. Aldritch, over here!”

  Caroline looked over her shoulder to see a tall, vaguely familiar man making his way through the crowds toward her. He was a friend of Lawrence’s, she knew; one of the friends he had gone to gaming hells and racetracks with, one of the friends she disliked. However, being rude now was sure to avail her nothing, so she paused, a polite smile on her lips.

  “Mrs. Aldritch, thank goodness I have found you! Your landlady said you were out,” he said, coming to a halt next to her. Caroline saw then that he held a small, paper-wrapped parcel under his arm.

  “I had some business to attend to, Mr....”

  “Burne-Jones. Mr. James Burne-Jones. We met at the Bedford rout last month.”

  Caroline remembered that rout, given by some of the last members of very minor gentry who still welcomed Lawrence to their home. She remembered standing by the wall, watching the dancers while Lawrence lost desperately in the card room. She did not remember this man, but she said, “Yes, of course.”

 
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