Scandal’s Bride – Pamela Gibson

The walls of the dower house rose before him, higher now, obscuring the stone house beyond. The sturdy wooden gate had a double lock to make sure the woman inside could not escape. The house itself was small, but pleasant. He’d made sure all her personal possessions moved with her, so she’d be surrounded by familiar things. Her favorite chair, her ornate silk bed hangings, the hand-carved armoire from France—all these fripperies occupied the rooms in her new home. Tall windows overlooked a flower garden planted with roses, wisteria, and rhododendrons. In time, ivy would cover the new section of the wall. John Montague inserted the key and opened the gate. He swallowed the bile rising in his throat. He’d forced himself to visit her, not knowing if he’d be greeted with affection or a screaming rage. But he’d been assured today was one of her good days. Her longtime maid answered the door and seated him in the small parlor. He crossed his legs and swung his foot, his gaze fastened on the door into the hallway. It opened. Clad in a morning gown of gray muslin, she fluttered into the room like an excitable bird.

He rose, and she came right to him, touching his face with slender fingers before beckoning him to sit on the chair opposite hers. “We have tarts today, Jonathan. Your favorite.” She poured his tea, handed him a cup with precisely the right amount of milk and passed the plate of sweets. He took one and forced a smile. “You’re looking well. How are you feeling?” Her eyes misted as she scanned the room. “I’ve had better days. The cold keeps me indoors. I look forward to spring.

Perhaps we can have a house party when the weather warms. Your father will be pleased.” John glanced at the elderly maidservant mending a dress in the corner of the room. She looked up and shook her head, as if telling him to go along with whatever was said. Loyal, well-trained servants lived here now. Having familiar faces around her must be a relief. They chatted about London. John tried to remember the latest on-dits about people she knew. When he finished his tea and two berry tarts, he rose and took his leave, promising to visit again. He sighed.

She seemed better. Fixing the dower house for her had been a good decision. But as he turned away, fists pounded his back, and hateful words assaulted his ears. “Ungrateful cur, let me out. Don’t turn your back on me, Jonathan. This is monstrous. You cannot confine me here. I am the Countess of Longley. This is my home. I’m not a bedlamite.

I’m . I’m your mother!” Your mother. He left her sobbing in the arms of her maid and made haste to withdraw. The guard who made sure she remained confined let him out, and he stumbled onto the path back to the main house, blinded by guilt. He entered the house and loped up the stairs to his room. If only he’d spent more time at the manor instead of in London carousing with his friends. If only his older brother Jeremy had not gone to Jamaica. If only Father had not died. But all those events occurred, and Mama, left alone at Longley Manor, had no one to supervise her spending or to observe her increasingly erratic behavior. Or to notice her final slide into madness.

He stiffened his shoulders and returned his focus to the open valise. Most of his belongings would remain here at Longley until he made his new home habitable. Jeremy was now the earl, and while he resided in London during the Season, he and his countess would return here to the country when the Season ended. He and Miranda assured him he would always have a home. No need to pack more than necessities. For now, he would heed their advice, but he could not remain here forever. Memories were too painful. In a few days, he’d be in Yorkshire, completing a detailed inspection of the estate he’d inherited from a relative and had not visited since he’d returned from the war. Now that his time in the army was at an end, he wanted to see what he could make of his property. When he’d visited two years ago, the abandoned house needed substantial repairs.

He hoped it hadn’t collapsed into a pile of rubble. The small stipend he received from his brother would have to be stretched because marrying for money was not an option. No heiress would wed an impoverished second son, not if she could look higher. But that wasn’t the only reason. What if madness ran in the family? He knew virtually nothing about his mother’s relatives. Were there other unhinged branches of her family tree? He would not risk fathering a child. He closed his valise and buckled the clasps. He wasn’t a monk, but if he needed female companionship, he’d find a willing widow past childbearing age or make use of French letters for added protection. Jeremy and Miranda scoffed at his beliefs. No evidence existed that a malady of the mind was carried from one generation to another.

But they had not been the ones to visit Bedlam and a handful of private institutions considered for Mother when it appeared her madness had turned deadly. He’d seen them all, and his resolve had hardened. When he completed his visit to Yorkshire, he’d go back to London and acquire what tools and supplies his stipend could buy and begin his repairs. He’d adhere to his plan, even if it took a lifetime. With a straight back and confident steps, he strode from his boyhood room, down the staircase, and out the front door where his horse waited. His mother’s words still rang in his ears as he mounted. He never looked back. Chapter 1 London, a few weeks later Lady Gwendolyn Pettigrew crossed her arms and sat primly in the chair next to her bed. Her chin raised, she glared at her mother’s maid, who’d been sent to fetch her. “Tell Papa I am not well.

Tell him I cast up my accounts all over the coverlet and had to recline in an uncomfortable chair while my maid changed the linens. Tell him I have contracted a stomach ailment and have returned to my bed.” The woman’s lip curled, and her gaze hardened. She curtsied and stalked out of the room, closing the door. Straight to Mama. That’s where she’ll go. She’ll repeat my complaint, and she’ll make it sound like the lie it is. Five minutes later Lady Culbertson drifted in, an ever-present handkerchief grasped in her plump hand. “What’s this nonsense about being ill? You were down for breakfast and ate a hearty meal as you always do. Was it the kippers, dear? You consumed half the pan.

” Gwendolyn climbed with exaggerated movements into her bed, wriggled under the covers, and drew them up to her chin. She had changed back into her nightgown and cap as soon as her suitor had arrived. “I don’t feel well, Mama. Tell Papa I cannot meet Lord Caulfield today. He is old, and what I have might be contagious. He could fall ill and die right in your parlor.” “Nonsense.” Lady Culbertson narrowed her eyes. “You aren’t ill. You are being stubborn.

You want to make my life miserable. You want your brother to force you into service when your dear father departs this world.” She sniffed and dabbed her eyes with the bit of lace in her hand. “I do not understand why your brother dislikes you . his own flesh and blood.” “Reginald does not dislike me.” She slid the covers down to her waist. “’Tis my dear sister-inlaw. For some reason Lydia loathes my pursuits and has convinced Reggie she cannot live with me in the same house. She is vain and pretentious, but my spineless brother adores her.

He’ll do anything she asks.” She moderated her tone. “Surely Papa is not leaving this world any time soon. Why must I marry odious Lord Caulfield? I do not want to marry. I am happy in my spinsterhood.” Only that wasn’t true. She’d hoped to find an intelligent partner, a man who would respect her love of books, who’d let her continue her weekly salons. Many interesting people attended . poets, artists, other bluestockings like herself. Oh yes, she knew what people said about her.

After five unsuccessful Seasons, Gwendolyn Pettigrew sat firmly on the shelf. Not that she was an antidote. She kept her hair clean and nicely groomed. Her eyes were like father’s, a fine shade of blue. Her nose was a little broad, but not overly so. And she had all her teeth. She sunk said teeth into her bottom lip, pulled the bedcovers back up, and peered at Mama over the top while contemplating exactly why she hadn’t received any reasonable offers. Long ago she’d decided her curious mind and her forthright way of speaking must be what turned eligible gentlemen away. Her generous curves, fed by her taste for sweets, added to the problem for a society obsessed with sylphlike creatures made popular by the Empress Josephine. Mama wrung her hands, crumpling her handkerchief.

“Be reasonable, Gwen. This is your chance to set up a household of your own.” With Caulfield? Never. No one she could abide had offered for her, and that meant she would never be a mother. And her secret, heartfelt wish was to hold a child of her own in her arms. She envied her friends who had babies and toddlers. She offered to play with them when she visited and came away sad and unfulfilled. If she were a mother, she would not employ a nanny or a governess. She would care for her children herself, teach them about nature and interesting places in the world, and introduce them to the wonder of books. Apparently, it was not to be.

She would not accept the doddering fool downstairs who had offered for her. Lord Caulfield had estates and wealth. As old as her father, he had outlived three wives who had not produced an heir. It was rumored the last died of the pox. The pox! She shuddered. Papa scoffed at the rumor, saying Caulfield’s nephew started it in an effort to discredit him so no eligible woman would marry him. The nephew was next in line to inherit. Gwendolyn knew better. She had close friends who knew of the old rogue’s dissipation. The scullery maid’s second cousin worked in his household.

Disgusting anecdotes had found their way to Gwen’s ears. She’d run away before she’d marry that old goat. Or kill herself. She gasped. Perhaps nothing that final. Papa was reasonable. She’d appeal to his sense of fairness. He’d humored her all these years. If only he didn’t think he was in immediate peril. The weak knock on her door told her who stood outside.

She shrunk under the covers. Could she force herself to play ill in front of Papa? I’m being silly. Talk to him. I’m his only daughter. He dotes on me and wants me to be happy. Has he not said as much a thousand times? He hobbled in, leaning heavily on his cane. Mama flounced past him toward the hall. “I shall leave you to deal with this ungrateful chit.” Papa’s dark hair, liberally streaked with gray, always seemed to be in disarray. His eyes bored into hers.

“Why are you not dressed? Lord Caulfield awaits you.” She cringed. “I . I cannot see him today.” “Why are you defying me? You are making my health worse.” A pang of guilt shot through her, but only for a moment. “I won’t marry Caulfield. I told Mama why, and I know she told you.” Sexual proclivities of old rakes were not subjects for delicately bred maidens. Her father would have been appalled if she’d mentioned the subject to him.

“And I told your mother it was poppycock. Now get up. Get dressed and come downstairs and greet your suitor. I will leave you alone for ten minutes, so you can demurely accept him. I will hear no more about your reasons for refusal.” She was able to force a tear. “I thought you loved me, Papa. I thought you wanted me to be happy.” He ran his fingers through his hair, a pained expression on his face. “I do.

But we’ve run out of gentlemen. You have no other prospects. And I’m getting weaker by the day.” “I want to remain here. Can you not speak to Reginald? If Lydia finds me to be an embarrassment, he can set me up in a small house in a respectable neighborhood. Gentlemen do that all the time for their mistresses.” La, she’d done it now. His eyes widened. “How do you know such things? I am shocked. It must be those dreadful novels you read.

Do not disobey me, Gwen. Marriage is the only solution. It will give you security. Your dowry is not large, but Lord Caulfield finds it sufficient. Now please get dressed.” She grudgingly threw back the covers, slid out of bed, and thrust her arms into her robe, belting it tightly. Padding over to Papa, she stood in front of him and laid her head against his chest. “Please, Papa. Tell him I am ill. Tell him to return another day.

I need more time to consider my options.” He patted his daughter’s head. “You’ve run out of options, my pet.” Oh Lord, it was time for the bigger lie. She took a deep breath. “Give me a fortnight, Papa. No longer. If no one else asks for my hand, I will marry Lord Caulfield.” She moved back to look her father in the eye, hating her need to be untruthful. Her fingers crossed behind her back, she forced herself to smile.

“I know you want what is best for me, Papa, but I have a confession to make.” “I’m all ears.” “I . I’m in love . with another. Someone suitable but impoverished. If . if I can convince him to ask for my hand, will you let me wed him?” His eyes narrowed, and he shook his head. “You’re making this up, aren’t you, Gwen?” She squeezed her fingers tighter. “No, Papa.

It’s true. He is honorable to a fault. He did not want to spoil my chances for a good marriage, er, a better marriage.” “Why have I not heard this before? Does your mother know? Have you two been keeping things from me?” “No. I have told no one.” She took a deep breath, appalled by her own lies and how easily they fell from her mouth. “I did not want to distress you or Mama.” “I see.” She tried to look contrite. “A fortnight? Please?” He stepped back, found a chair, and sat.

Sweat covered his brow. His breathing was labored. Alarmed, she stared at his gray face. “Shall I call your valet?” “Give me a moment.” He leaned his head back against the high-backed chair and closed his eyes. When he opened them, he skewered her with his gaze. “Very well. A fortnight. And then you will accept my choice without further argument, without hysterics, without fabrications.” She studied her bare feet.

“Yes, Papa.” He raised himself from the chair and left the room without another word. What possessed me to make such a promise? Where was her maid? “Sadie? I need you.” Sadie hurried in. “Yes, milady?” “Quick. Help me get dressed. Then call for the carriage. I need to go to the Earl of Longley’s town house.” “I thought you said you were ill.” “I have recovered.

My clothes. Hurry.” Two weeks ago, she’d visited her dear friend Lady Miranda Montague, now the Countess of Longley. After pouring out her dilemma, she’d been given a glimmer of hope. Sympathetic and practical, Miranda had promised to help her find a solution. She sincerely hoped her friend had come up with something, or else in a fortnight her life would be over. Stop it. Drama doesn’t help. She slipped on her shift, her corset, and an underskirt. Her day dress of green muslin fell easily over her head and fastened up the back.

Her spencer was a darker shade of green, and her half boots matched. She donned a serviceable straw bonnet with a wide green velvet ribbon and picked up her gloves. Taking the servants’ stairs, she slipped out the back and raced down to the mews to be sure she avoided Caulfield if he still lurked about. With luck, she’d be at the town house by teatime. Miranda rarely went out into society, for reasons of her own. She would be at home. I will not panic. I am smart. I will find an answer. She told a disapproving John Coachman where she wanted to go, climbed into the carriage, and settled on the leather squabs.

Neither of her parents would look in on her. Papa truly looked ill, and Mama would be in her boudoir with her vinaigrette, wondering how she’d raised such a disobedient daughter. The coach came to a stop in front of a large Palladian stone building three stories high with two wings. A dozen steps led up to the front door. Maybry, the butler, opened the door with a smile. She was a frequent visitor, and he knew she was always welcome. “Shall I announce you, Miss Pettigrew?” “Please. I’ll wait here.” “Is your maid with you?” “Not today.” He frowned but stood back as she entered.

She’d offended Maybry’s sense of propriety, but honestly, she didn’t have time to be bothered today. Miranda came halfway down the curving staircase, a baby on her hip. “Gwen? Is something amiss? James and I are in the blue drawing room. He’s learning to crawl. Can you believe it?” She beamed like the proud mother she was. Gwen followed her up and perched on a gold couch with plump pillows. Miranda sat on the floor, her golden head in a tight bun except for tendrils pulled loose by the baby. “See what he can do.” The baby cooed, turned over on his stomach, and scooted along the carpeted floor. Miranda clasped her hands.

“Is he not delightful?” “Indeed. He is a clever one. Soon he’ll be talking.” A thread of longing snaked through her when her married friends frolicked with their offspring, but she plucked it free. Motherhood was not to be. And never with the likes of Lord Gerald Caulfield. Miranda scooped up the baby and put him to her shoulder. “What is wrong? You look like you lost your last friend, and I know that isn’t true. Plus, you’ve come without your maid.” “Remember our conversation a few weeks ago?” She grimaced.

“Is your aged suitor still pestering your father for your hand?” “Yes, and I’ve done a terrible thing.” “Give me a moment.” Miranda got up from the floor and rang for the nurse, handing the baby over. “I think he’s ready for his nap. He was fed earlier and has been very active today.” “Yes, milady.” Miranda turned and sat next to Gwen. “Now. Tell me what you’ve done.” “I lied to Papa.

” “Oh dear.” She swallowed and clutched the fabric of her skirt. “He’s given me an ultimatum. I have exactly a fortnight to find a suitor, or I will have to marry Lord Caulfield.” Miranda’s words were as gentle as her voice. “He can’t force you, Gwen.” Her eyes misted. “He can if I wish to maintain my lifestyle. You see, as long as Papa is alive, I have a dowry—a modest one. But once he dies, all the money goes to my brother.

Reggie will not turn out Mama. Such an action would be scandalous. But his wife has always had an aversion to me. I’m unconventional, outspoken, and my salons are often the subject of gossip. I’ve been an embarrassment to her. I will be penniless and will have to marry someone Reggie chooses or go into service. Lydia has already told me she’s found me a suitable post as a companion.” “I see.” Miranda gave her a quick hug. “We’ll find you a suitor.

An honorable one.” “They do not grow on trees, Miranda. I cannot go out into the park and shout, ‘I am in need of a husband. Who will apply?’ and wait for an answer.” “No, you cannot. But you won’t have to. I think I know the perfect gentleman to help you out of your dilemma.” “You do?” Did she sound incredulous? Because that was how she felt. Miranda sat back with her arms crossed, a sly smile on her face. “Is your father still willing to provide you with a dowry, even if you choose someone other than Caulfield?” “Yes.

I’m sure he will.” She took Gwen’s hand. “You have a lot to offer. You are smart, kind, and pretty. You find ways to make conversation when there’s nothing to say. You delight in the tiniest events and make people smile. But the dowry may be the one attribute sure to solve your problem.” “I hope you are right.” Miranda nodded. “Are you desperate enough to make a marriage of convenience?” “Yes.

Anyone but Lord Caulfield.” Miranda’s smile widened. “I’m sure this gentleman will be perfect.” “If he is of age and has a pleasant disposition, I shall accept him. What is his name?” “I cannot say a name yet. I wish to be sure he is willing. But, to paraphrase the opening of your favorite novel, he is ‘a gentleman in want of a wife.’”

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