Scandal & the Duchess – Jennifer Ashley

When he was this drunk, there was only one thing to do. Steven McBride laid the rest of his money on the table and got unsteadily to his feet. “Divide it,” he said to the assembled men, his Scots accent slurring. “I cannae see my cards anymore, and you’ll have it off me anyway. Good night.” His friends and acquaintances, some as drunk as himself, either laughed or grunted and went back to their cards. Bloody Scottish upstart, he knew many of them thought. Some thought much worse than that—those who knew the story—by their dark looks. Army should have slung him out. Steven knew exactly why he was imbibing to his eyeballs on his leave, and why he’d come home earlier this year. Knowing why did not make it any easier to leave the card room, navigate his way down the stairs—who the devil had put the card room upstairs?—and stagger into the street. He looked up and down for his carriage, then remembered he’d hired a carriage to bring him to the soiree tonight. Steven vaguely remembered dismissing it, blast it all, telling the coachman he’d make his own way home. The November cold was bitter, a wind sweeping down the street to cut straight through Steven’s uniform coat. Steven’s regiment was currently in West Africa, a land of warmth.

Bloody great heat, actually, but Africa was an amazing world full of amazing people. Nothing there like this frozen London passage, wind howling down it, stinging him even in his drunken state. Which way were his lodgings? Steven didn’t have a permanent house in London, so he usually hired rooms whenever he came to town—flats that catered to single gentlemen. He stayed in the same area each time, but rarely in the same house or even the same street. Sometimes he didn’t bother with rooms at all and stayed in a hotel like the Langham. The Langham—had a familiar ring to it. Was Steven living there now? Or had that been last year? Steven realized he was standing befuddled in the street, buffeted by the wind. Passersby, what there were of them on this bone-cold night, were looking at him askance. The pungent, grassy smell of horse dung caught his attention. A carriage clopped slowly by, the horses doing what horses did even when walking about.

Wildcats in Africa were cagey about where they relieved themselves, hiding it from all but the most canny hunters. London horses simply let it fall to the street, and humans came along behind and swept it up for them. Which animal was the more clever? Steven half jogged, half stumbled toward the carriage. A hansom, that’s what he needed. He could tell the cabby to take him to the Langham, where they’d find him a room, whether he’d booked in already or not. The shape was wrong for a hansom, but Steven was past caring. He had to get somewhere, or he’d fall down in the street and spend the rest of the night unconscious on the cobbles. Even in this part of London, even in this weather, he doubted he’d have much left on him when he woke up. The carriage stopped. Wind cut Steven, making his eyes water.

He folded his arms against the cold, and ran toward the carriage, head down. A woman bundled in a thick cloak and hood came out of the lighted house the carriage had halted before. As soon as she crossed the threshold, four or five other persons appeared out of nowhere to block her way. “There she is!” “Duchess . Your Grace . ” “Your Grace, my readers would love a description of your gown tonight . Are you still in mourning?” “Your Grace, how did it feel to have ensnared a duke, only to have him perish in the wedding bed?” “Your Grace, there are rumors of you carrying on a flirtation with the Earl of Posenby. Or his son. Some speculate both. Would you tell us which it is?” Bloody journalists, Steven thought in disgust.

They were after some aristo, more dirt for the scandal sheets. Steven had no idea who the cloaked woman was and had no interest. He only wanted to climb into the carriage—private or not, he’d pay the coachman handsomely to take him anywhere. Of course, he’d just thunked a large wad of money to the game table. Steven wondered vaguely if he had any left as he made a lunge for the coach. The cloaked woman broke from the vultures—“Your Grace, is it true you’re wintering in Nice with a comte?” She put on a burst of speed. Steven stumbled on his drunken feet, and he and the woman met in a crash of flesh and breathlessness. Steven found himself landing face-first on a bosom of exceptional quality. The woman’s cloak had pulled away, revealing a gown fairly modestly cut but giving Steven enough bosom to enjoy. His cheek rested on warm flesh, his lips pressed onyx beads, and he inhaled a heady, womanly perfume.

He heard a heart beating rapidly under his ear, and a voice vibrating through a body of fine plumpness. “Oh dear.” Steven tried to raise his head—not that he wanted to—but he couldn’t. He could only lever himself up by grasping the woman by the hips and pulling himself upright. The hips were a warm handful, the thighs beneath her skirts and stiff bustle even better. Steven climbed the poor woman, unbending himself as he went. Unfortunately, his legs had stopped working. They gave way again, throwing his weight onto her. She retreated to compensate, but her back met the carriage door. Steven kept falling, his body landing full-length against hers, plastering her to the coach.

The woman’s hood slipped down. Steven saw eyes of clearest green, a round face haloed by golden hair, flushed cheeks, and a wide mouth that begged for kisses. It would be rude to kiss her without asking first, but Steven didn’t have the words to inquire. His face and hers were very close together, the kissable lips an inch away. “My dear fellow,” the woman said breathlessly. “Are you all right?” “No,” Steven tried to say. “Damn, woman, but you’re beautiful.” The words came out a jumbled mess, in broad Highland Scots, but the journalists heard them. “Your Grace, who is he?” “A regimental affair, is it? Or a Highland fling?” “What about the comte? And the earl?” “Good Lord,” came the impatient voice of Steven’s angel. “Leave the poor man alone.

Can’t you see he’s ill?” “Falling down drunk is more like it,” one of the journalists said, and laughed. “Who is he? Give us a name.” “You lot, clear off!” The coachman had come down off the box, and flapped his hands at the journalists like a woman shooing chickens out of her garden. Steven wanted to burst out laughing. At the same time, a footman exited the house from which the woman had emerged and laid hands on Steven. Steven heard the cry of a constable coming up the street, along with the man’s heavy footsteps. “Off with you,” the footman growled at Steven. The constable came faster, his tall helmet bobbing out of the gloom and making Steven laugh harder. Laughter and the footman’s heavy hands made Steven slide down the woman’s body. He found the hard street beneath his knees, his face buried in her abdomen, the black bombazine of her gown smooth against his nose.

She smelled wonderful. The perfume didn’t come from a bottle. It was her—soap and the scent of fabric, warmth and woman. Steven pressed his face to her belly, wanting to take his ease with her. “Sir.” Her hands were on his hair. Steven snuggled in closer. If they’d been alone and without so many clothes, this would be the perfect way to finish the night. She leaned to him, his angel, and whispered, “What on earth are you doing?” “Loving you,” Steven said. “You deserve every bit of loving a man can give you.

” “Oh,” she said. “You are very drunk, I believe. Perhaps the nice constable will see you home.” “No home.” His home was a tent in Africa, under huge sky, in blessed warmth. “I have no home.” “Dear me, that’s sad. Do you need money? Perhaps a meal?” Steven’s laughter returned. She thought him a homeless, helpless sot, and maybe he was. The journalists surged forward.

More people seemed to be on the street, and someone threw a stone. “Tart!” a woman yelled. “Be off with ye.” The coachman growled. He flung open the door of the coach and more or less hoisted the woman inside. Steven grabbed the door as it swung shut, hanging on to it to keep him upright. The coachman started to wrench him away, but the journalists pushed in, as did the sudden crowd. London loved a riot—best way to keep warm in the winter, Steven mused—any excuse to begin one. “Miles, let him in. He’ll get trampled.

” Steven heard her voice, felt himself be hauled up under the arms by a man of amazing strength, and then he met the floor of the carriage. The door slammed, bumping Steven’s booted foot. After a moment, the carriage jerked forward, and things splattered against it—the denizens making good use of the handy horse apples in the street. The angel seemed to be speaking to him. Steven heard her clear voice but no words. He laid his head on her skirt, blissfully warm, and drifted off to sleep. *** When Steven cracked open his eyes, it was daylight; at least as much daylight that could filter through the narrow, dirty window on a London winter day. The narrow window went with the narrow room, wide enough only for a single bed and a corner washstand. That was all. No curtain or blind, no bureau, no cheerful fire, only a brick chimney that went up through the room and gave off a modicum of heat.

Where the hell was he? The last thing Steven remembered was a card game . No, a cold London street, someone throwing things . Green eyes, red lips curving into a little smile, and a scent like roses. Deep red roses, heady and intense. Had Steven dreamed her? If so, he wanted to go back to sleep. But the cold, Steven’s pounding head, and details of the night were knocking for attention. He should climb out of bed, dress, and face his problems like a Scotsman and a soldier. The bed was warm, and raising his head hurt like hell. Steven laid it back down. He must have slept again, because when he next opened his eyes, the room was brighter.

The door swung open, and in came his angel with a wooden tray heaped with crockery. “Good morning,” she said brightly. “Would you like some tea?”


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