Scandal Meets Its Match – Merry Farmer

Lenore Garrett was perfectly happy with the way her life had turned out, though she was certain that almost every one of her friends back home in Haskell, Wyoming would balk and make faces at her if they knew the truth of her situation. The letters she received from home were full of awe and amazement that a rancher’s daughter—albeit a wealthy one—could pull up stakes and create a brand-new life for herself amongst England’s high society. And if they all believed that she had dashed off to foreign shores as one of dozens of American Dollar Princesses, intent on marrying a titled gentleman so that she could lord it over folks back home, then that was what they could believe. What they didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them. Lenore knew better. She’d traveled to England a year before with her father, who had made the trip for business purposes. Lenore had begged him to let her tag along. Indeed, her life had depended on it in very real ways. Her dear papa always had been indulgent, so of course he had allowed her to accompany him on his business trip. He might not have been so quick to bring her to London, if he’d known she had no intention whatsoever of returning to America. Ever. Returning to America, let alone Haskell, would be a death sentence. “Do you need a drink of something?” Freddy—that is, Lord Frederick Herrington, Earl of Herrington, her fiancé—asked, leaning closer to her as they stood in the crowded lobby of The Concord Theater in Drury Lane. “Oh. What?” Lenore blinked her way out of her pensive thoughts and turned to Freddy, fanning herself furiously to cool her suddenly overheated face.

“Do theaters serve refreshments before the show has started?” Freddy shrugged, a genial smile on his handsome face as he glanced around the lobby for the answer to her question. “Probably not,” he said. “But you look a bit piqued, so I thought I’d ask.” “Dear Freddy.” Lenore grinned, resting her free hand in the crook of his arm. “You really are a gem.” She raised her fan to hide her face from casual onlookers and proceeded to say, “Reese is a lucky man indeed.” “I most certainly am,” Lord Reese Howsden said, leaning into Freddy’s other side so that the three of them formed a secretive cluster. He winked for good measure. Lenore knew full well he was winking at Freddy, even though, to the outside observer, it would look as though he were teasing Lenore instead.

Lenore had been aware from the start that Reese and Freddy were lovers, and that they were passionately devoted to each other in a union that was stronger than most marriages she knew. They’d even adopted a baby girl, Rose, from a tenant on Reese’s country property to raise together, along with Reese’s son, Harry, from his long-deceased wife. To the rest of the world, it seemed like nothing more than Reese’s generosity at taking in a foundling child to keep his son company. In fact, it was the happy couple’s way of starting a family together, the same as any other married friends Lenore had. Indeed, she considered herself a coconspirator in her friends’ love story. And if she were honest—which she hadn’t been, not for a long time, not as she should —the false engagement she had entered into with Freddy did far more to protect her than it ever would to protect Freddy and Reese, as was its intention. “You do look a bit anxious,” Reese picked up where Freddy had left off, frowning gently at Lenore. “Is it the crowd?” “I’ve never seen a crowd so large or so boisterous at an opening night for an untested play,” Freddy added, glancing out over the packed lobby. “You can’t go wrong with one of Niall Cristofori’s plays. And all of London has been buzzing about this young upstart, Everett Jewel,” Reese said with a slight shrug, nodding to the poster hung on one of the far walls.

It depicted a dazzlingly handsome man with dark hair and startling eyes, Mr. Jewel, dressed as the character he would be portraying that evening. “They say he’s the greatest talent since Edmund Kean.” “Well, he’s better looking than Kean at any rate,” Freddy added with a laugh. “Much better looking.” “Don’t get any ideas, love,” Reese teased him in a voice low enough that only Freddy and Lenore could hear. “It’s hard not to with a figure like that,” Freddy murmured, swaying closer to Reese. “Are you trying to make me jealous?” Reese all but whispered in return. “Stop,” Lenore laughed loudly, drawing attention from some of the expectant theatergoers near them. “The two of you will land in hot soup if you don’t behave with a little more decorum.

” “Land in hot soup?” Reese snorted. “Is that an Americanism?” “No one would dare to suggest I am guilty of any impropriety when I have such a dazzling and clever fiancée,” Freddy said, inching closer to Lenore and hugging her arm to his side in a move that was scandalously informal for a public setting. But that was the point. Freddy knew how to play his part and avoid scrutiny over his true nature well. Lenore chuckled and smacked him with her fan. She would never be in love with Freddy, for obvious reasons, but he was the best friend she ever could have hoped for. Reese as well. The three of them made the perfect team. The antics they got up to—with or without involving the children—were enough to content her with the blunt fact that she would never find real love. Almost enough.

“Are you certain you’re still happy with our arrangement?” Freddy asked, as if sensing her thoughts. Or perhaps he’d read her expression, which had fallen as her attention was snagged by a particularly amorous couple at the far end of the lobby. She knew Lady Agnes Hamilton vaguely. The way the woman smiled adoringly—or perhaps it was anxiously—at Lord Granger, her color high and her eyes bright, left Lenore with a wistful feeling in her chest that she couldn’t avoid. “I am perfectly happy,” Lenore said, standing straighter and insisting inwardly that she wasn’t saying that to convince herself. “I have a delightful life here in England. I have wonderful friends. And I get to attend opening nights of plays that all of London will be talking about tomorrow.” “True,” Freddy said, tilting his head to the side, then leaning closer to go on with, “But I’ve come to know you well enough in this last year to know that you would be much happier if you could end the evening in bed with a bloke who fancies you instead of curled up with yet another issue of that erotic journal, Nocturne, that has all of London talking, and the unmentionable item you failed to hide fast enough when I knocked on your boudoir door to see if you were ready earlier.” Lenore’s already flushed face went beet red at Freddy’s mention of the artifact in question.

“You’re not supposed to even know about such things,” she hissed, “let alone mention them in public.” “Darling,” he said with a smirk. “I not only know about those things, Reese and I have an entire set for when we’re in particularly high spirits.” Lenore laughed so hard she snorted, drawing far more attention than she needed to. She found herself feigning a coughing fit just so that the middle-aged matron who frowned at her would glance away instead of attempting to listen in on the conversation. Most of London already thought she was an unrefined heathen from the Wild West. She didn’t have to prove they were right at every turn. “I find Nocturne to be quite enough on its own at the moment,” she whispered to Freddy. “The stories in that particular periodical are educational as well as entertaining.” She assumed a superior attitude and punctuated her statement with a nod.

“That publication is pure smut,” Reese said, leaning in so that the three of them formed a triumvirate again. “Which is why everyone adores it, of course.” Lenore and Freddy both laughed like naughty schoolchildren who had been caught with the journal in question. In fact, Nocturne had been captivating London audiences for over a year with its highly erotic content. Mostly because every scandalous story contained in its pages was clearly about someone in society whom everyone knew, based on their behavior at various parties and events throughout the season. The new season had yet to officially begin, but London was buzzing with enough activity that high and low both were waiting with baited breath for the latest edition, which was weeks overdue, as far as everyone was concerned. In more ways than one, Lenore considered herself lucky to have avoided inclusion in Nocturne. She was exactly the sort whom its author—whoever that may have been— included in its pages. She was young, beautiful, wealthy, and American. And she wasn’t particularly shy about making her presence known at social events.

But it was all the things that society didn’t know about her, all the things that even Freddy and Reese didn’t know about her, that she dreaded the author of Nocturne getting wind of. As flattering to her saucy sense of vanity as it might have been to be included in Nocturne’s pages, she had too many things to hide. A burst of shrill laughter shook Lenore out of her thoughts, and she glanced across the room to see Lady Agnes nearly hyperventilating as she clung to Lord Granger’s arm. The circle of waiting theater patrons near the pair took a step back, affording the couple a bit of space. Lady Agnes seemed to be dancing on her spot and fanned herself furiously as her laughter continued unabated. Lenore frowned. Whatever Lady Agnes was up to, it was more than simply flirting. If she had been a betting man, like her father, she would have said something was wrong with the poor woman. No sooner had that thought struck her than Lenore spotted a shadowy figure beyond Lady Agnes, near the theater door, staring straight at her. Her heart leapt in her chest, and she suddenly felt every bit as agitated and amorous as Lady Agnes.

“Is that Mr. Mercer staring at you as though he’d like to take a bite out of you?” Freddy asked with a teasing grin. “I believe it is,” Lenore said with feigned casualness, fanning herself as she made eyecontact with Mr. Phineas Mercer. “Have you two spoken since that coup you pulled to get old what’s his name to confess to burning down Danny Long’s pub?” Freddy asked on. “Only in passing, at parties and the like,” Lenore said, cursing herself for sounding so breathless. “We had quite a conversation at Lady Phoebe and Mr. Long’s wedding reception.” “You should go over and say hello to him.” Freddy let go of her arm and nudged her into motion.

“The chap looks as though he’d love the chance to be reacquainted.” Lenore glanced over her shoulder at Freddy with a flat stare that said she knew exactly what he was up to. Knowing didn’t stop her from heading toward Phineas, though. Phineas Mercer was exactly the sort of man a woman like her could turn to for a scandalously good time. And it had been ages since Lenore had had a good time. Freddy leaned in to say something to Reese, no doubt at Lenore’s expense, as she faced forward, setting her sights on Phineas. She made it across the packed lobby somehow, dodging more than a few restless patrons and listening to another peel of overly loud laughter from Lady Agnes—who was drawing as much attention as Mr. Jewel was sure to once the play began. By the time she approached Phineas Mercer, he was ready for her, standing tall and regarding her with a look of pleasure behind his unassuming spectacles. “Miss Garrett,” he began with as much of a bow as he could make in the cramped space.

“It’s so good to see you again. You’re looking well this evening.” “You’re looking charming yourself, Mr. Mercer,” Lenore said, raising her hand so that Phineas could take it. Like a gentleman, he bowed over it, kissing her gloved knuckles. “It’s been too long since our last meeting.” “I agree,” he said, straightening, but only letting go of her hand gradually. “I’m sure the fault and the blame for that is all mine.” “Oh?” Lenore used the excuse of so many people crammed into the lobby to stand far closer to Phineas than would otherwise have been proper. Though most of London society considered the man to be nothing at all special—he was only heir to a baronetcy in faraway Yorkshire, and even though he was as handsome as Adonis, in Lenore’s opinion, his glasses seemed to dissuade most fine society ladies from considering him as a beau— Lenore had found him fascinating from the moment their paths had first crossed in the spring when Danny Long and Lady Phoebe’s problems had thrown them together.

Together they’d plotted—and flirted—extensively on Lady Phoebe’s behalf. It had been delicious and left her with a taste for more. “I’ve had quite a bit of business on my plate,” Phineas went on to say in a frank tone. Lenore considered it a good sign that he would speak to her so unreservedly. “Business is always important,” she answered with equal frankness. “Heaven knows it’s what occupies my father most of the time.” She paused before asking, “What business is it you do again?” A smile that was far more mysterious than her simple question warranted lit his features. “The business of searching for a wealthy bride, of course,” he said. His eyes flashed, and if Lenore wasn’t mistaken, raked her with a heated gaze. “If I find one, I’ll be sure to let you know,” she said, fanning herself coquettishly.

“I was given to understand London was full of them when I made my way here from Yorkshire,” he went on. “Though those claims have yet to be proven true.” “You must not be looking in the right place,” Lenore said, blinking innocently. “Oh, I’m looking in the right place, all right.” His blue eyes bored into her, suggesting far more than his casual words. “It’s a shame Freddy—” She wasn’t sure how to end the sentence. She wasn’t sure the sentence had more of an end than that. Fortunately for Lenore, she was spared having to explain as Lady Agnes laughed again and lurched in her direction. Lenore wheeled around just in time to catch the poor young woman as she stumbled close. “Are you all right?” Lenore asked, holding her so that she didn’t fall and keeping her steady until she was certain Lady Agnes could stand on her own power.

It came as no surprise that the poor dear was trembling slightly, which caused the copious lace ruffles of her theater gown to flutter like a hundred restless butterflies. “Yes, yes, I’m fine,” Lady Agnes said in a breathy voice, then swallowed. “Are you quite certain?” Phineas asked with a concerned look. “I am, truly, I am,” Lady Agnes went on, her eyes not seeming to fix on anything in particular. “Oh, dear. Do you have any smelling salts? I fear I might need them.” “You are not fine, Lady Agnes.” Lenore lowered her voice, genuinely concerned. “No, no, I must be. I have to be.

” Lady Agnes drew in a breath and stood straighter, pressing a trembling hand to her décolletage and looking as though she might grasp the thick strands of pearls around her neck and use them to strangle herself, putting herself out of her misery. “Mama insists that I must do my duty by our family and find a husband.” “Oh?” Lenore kept a hand on the woman’s arm until she was certain Lady Agnes wouldn’t faint. “Yes.” Lady Agnes nodded tightly, gulped, and forced herself to smile. “Even though I would so much rather stay safe at home.” Her eyes took on a hunted look, and Lenore thought she might cry. “Agnes.” Her mother’s single syllable was all it took for Lady Agnes to straighten and put on a tight smile as the formidable Lady Hamilton approached. “The house is opening,” Lady Hamilton said.

The woman’s expression was all concern. “Well, that’s that, then,” Lady Agnes said breathily, reaching for her mother’s hand and letting herself be led off to the theater. Lenore watched the two women go, feeling terrible for Lady Agnes. “What a curious interlude,” Phineas said, a look of careful calculation in his eyes as he adjusted his spectacles. Lenore wasn’t sure she liked his tone. “I have a friend like her—who has what I assume is her same problem—back home,” she said in a scolding tone. “Bethany had a mortal fear of crowds. They make her anxious to the point of tears, as though she is in imminent danger. She says that in crowded circumstances her pulse races, her hands grow numb and clammy, and she feels as though she might pass out, even if there is no more danger than some of the boys from town running around too fast and making too much noise.” “Yes, I have heard of the condition as well,” Phineas said with enough of a sympathetic look that Lenore’s good opinion of him remained intact.

He nodded across the room, then went on with, “You’d better rejoin your fiancé and his friend.” There was just enough intonation to the way he spoke to leave Lenore believing Phineas knew all about Freddy and Reese. “The house is open.” Lenore stayed right where she was. She crossed her arms and studied Phineas. “I suppose you think you’re clever,” she said, one eyebrow arched, daring him to point out the truth of her arrangement with Freddy. And Reese, for that matter. “Oh, I know I’m very clever indeed,” he answered with a mischievous grin, made somehow more alluring by the way his glasses framed his eyes. “But then, I suspect you are clever as well.”

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