Scandal’s Promise – Pamela Gibson

It was a damn fine day to die. Andrew Marcus Quigley, heir to the Earl of Cardmore, filled his lungs with crisp morning air and waited for his pistol to be examined. With a curt nod, he curled his fingers around the perfectly balanced Manton in his hand. Testing the pistol’s weight, he dropped his arm to his side and strode to the center of Hyde Park’s dueling ground. Dueling was illegal, but a code of honor made men take the risk. Even if the odds are against them. Nigel Wentworth, the Marquis of Dunston’s third son, followed him out, scowled, and took up his stance. There was no turning back now that blood boiled in Lord Nigel’s veins. Andrew had toyed with the idea of trying to cry off, but his second had told him it would be to no avail. Rage clawed at the young pup. Lord Nigel was hell-bent on avenging the woman he loved. Lady Caroline Woodley, the woman I supposedly seduced and shamed, and am now forced to marry. “Make ready,” someone shouted. Andrew raised himself to his full six feet and straightened his back. Ten paces, then turn and fire.

Christ. For nothing. “One, two . ” Andrew looked down at his boots, the shine visible even in the dim morning light. He marked each pace with a firm step, the soft grass under his feet more suitable for a child’s game or a lover’s tryst. “Three, four . ” The voice in his ears faded, overpowered by a burst of chatter from birds on the limb of a tree overhead. He walked on as the sun peeked over the horizon and a soft breeze caressed his cheek. Whoever thought duels should be fought at dawn? Day’s end would have been far more appropriate, a time when darkness settled, promising a cold night to match a cold grave. “Five, six .

” The weight of the gun felt heavy in his palm, and his finger tingled where it lay on the hair trigger. “Seven, eight . ” Two more paces and they would both turn. He, the real injured party, if anyone had cared to listen. And his opponent, an outraged suitor who was too besotted to believe the truth, that his beloved trapped another man into marriage. A richer one. “Nine, ten.” He spun around and aimed his pistol as the handkerchief dropped, and a shot disturbed the quiet of the morning. He jerked as a bullet hit his thigh. Blood seeped from the wound, staining his breeches in a widening circle.

He fought the pain and straightened to his full height once again. The young man in front of him, twenty paces away, stood as stiff as a statue. He raised his hand and fired in the general direction of his adversary, aiming a little higher than his shoulder. No need to have murder listed among my alleged sins. His bleeding leg buckled, and the grass rose up to meet him. As he fell, his thoughts weren’t on the men rushing toward him or the surgeon who knelt beside him muttering oaths. No, his thoughts were on a woman—not Caroline Woodley, but the one who eight weeks ago accepted his proposal of marriage. Emily Sinclair. Before he lost consciousness, he wondered if he might bleed to death. And found he could care less if he did.

Chapter 1 Cardmore Hall, Late Fall, Seven Years Later Andrew Quigley, Lord Cardmore, blinked as bright sunlight flooded his private sitting room. His friend, Lord Ralston, perched on the arm of a chair across from him, scowled as he perused the room. What did Ralston have to frown about? Tight pantaloons? High shirt points? Andrew rolled his shoulders, winced, and rang for his valet. His left shoulder—no, his whole body—felt like it was on fire. “You rang, sir?” “Go into the village, Lester, and get a few more bottles of laudanum. The pain in my shoulder seems worse today than when the saber sliced it.” Andrew rearranged himself on his settee, lifting one booted leg firmly onto the cushions while the other rested on the floor. His shirt of fine lawn lay open at the neck, and his pantaloons sported a stain on one knee. He studied the stain, not sure what it was. Claret? Or maybe the last dregs of the laudanum bottle when he’d tried to shake its contents into his mouth? His valet fidgeted in front of him.

“The apothecary said his shipment wouldn’t arrive until this afternoon, my lord.” “Damn it, Lester. Bring me a bottle of brandy then to tide me over. This pain is abominable.” The valet scurried out and closed the door behind him. “Are you sure you need more of that dreadful stuff?” Lord Ralston lifted himself from his perch, sauntered over, and plucked the empty bottle from Andrew’s hand. After perusing the label, he handed it back and wandered around the room. “They gave me morphine in the field—kept me woozy for weeks while the bloody infection healed. Bled me, too, by God. Told me the wound would be right and tight in a few weeks.

Take a couple of doses of laudanum daily until it was. Every time I stop taking it, the pain comes back, worse than before. When I have hefty doses, I can get through the day. Sometimes they even lighten my mood. I haven’t felt this much pain since that sawbones dug a bullet out of my thigh years ago.” Arms folded, back stiff, Ralston gazed at a painting of a water nymph. “Ah yes, your infamous duel of honor.” “Honor? The only honorable thing I did was shoot in the air. Nigel Wentworth was eighteen years old if he was a day. I doubt he’d ever held a pistol.

Caroline wasn’t worth his life. She was a scheming wench who trapped me into wedlock. If I hadn’t been foxed out of my mind, I would have noticed her in my bed the minute I entered my room.” Ralston resumed his stroll, stepping over a pile of clothing on the floor. “I often wondered why you went through with the wedding.” Andrew shifted his gaze away from his friend. “Because my pious tyrant of a father said he would cut off my allowance and change his will, leave everything to the church if I didn’t do the ‘right thing.’ He couldn’t touch Cardmore Hall or any other properties that were entailed. But the bulk of his fortune came from investments. I’m ashamed to admit I did as he asked before I bought a commission so I could slink off to the continent like a beaten dog.

” Then solidified his cowardice by ordering a retreat in the face of an enemy onslaught, not knowing at the time he’d been ordered to fall back. The messenger had been killed en route. How lucky. Instead of a coward, he’d been branded a hero. Ralston dropped his arms to his sides. “Aren’t you being a little harsh? When are you going to forgive yourself and get on with your life?” “Has Miss Sinclair forgiven me? Our betrothal had already been announced at a grand ball attended by the cream of society. When her father ordered her to cry off, she became a laughingstock —an object of pity. I ruined her life.” Last he heard she was still unmarried. Beautiful, proper Emily, a spinster now.

Fate had not been kind to her. He sat up, planted both feet on the floor, and covered his face with his hands. “Nigel Wentworth should have been a better shot.” “The pup did draw blood. It seemed to satisfy him.” Ralston plopped back into his chair. “I never understood why he challenged you. Pretty extreme, even for a suitor.” Andrew raised his eyes. “He was besotted with Caroline, followed her around like a starving mongrel hoping for a crumb.

She played with him—manipulated him into doing her bidding. She laughed when she told me, preening because he’d challenged me—over her.” “He was a bit buffle-headed, as I recall.” “Whatever happened to him, Ralston? The old marquis passed away two years ago. Lord Nigel’s eldest brother is Dunston now.” “Last I heard Lord Nigel was in America. He went there soon after the duel. His father packed him off.” Ralston loosened his cravat. “If what you say is true, I’m surprised the boy didn’t offer for her.

” Andrew snorted. “He did, but her father would have none of it. Wentworth was a pauper with no prospects, and I was a rich man’s son, ripe for the plucking. I’m sure Woodley was the one who devised the scheme and planted his wife conveniently outside my door so she could hear her daughter’s shrieks and rush in.” Ralston looked up. “She screamed? I never heard that part.” “No, she laughed. Her shrieks were almost gleeful. Loud enough for someone passing by in the hallway to hear. At least, that was what her mother said at the time.

Her dear mama accused me of seducing her innocent daughter and demanded that I marry her forthwith.” “No fainting?” “None.” Ralston raised his eyebrows and leaned back in his chair. “I often wondered if I could have prevented what happened to you. I was shooting in Scotland with John Montague at the time and missed that house party. Lord knows I’ve evaded a few parson’s mousetraps myself.” Andrew sighed and shook his head. “I take full responsibility. The minute I saw who was in my bed I knew it was a trap, and I should have run out shrieking myself. As it was, I was half undressed before I noticed her.

” And the nightmare had begun. First had been the interview with her father, who had displayed the proper amount of fury and indignation, demanding an immediate marriage. Andrew had refused. Next had been the interview with his father. When Andrew had tried to explain, the old tyrant had silenced him with his pious outrage. After invoking hellfire and damnation on the head of his only son, he’d unveiled his real threats—disinheritance and penury. “But what of Lady Emily?” he’d said. “You should have thought about her before you ruined a wellborn maiden,” his father had replied. “Lady Emily will cry off. Save face.

Maybe retire to the country ’til the gossip passes.” The conversation had ended, the subject never to be spoken of again. His fate had been sealed a week later when Father pounded on his door one morning and told him to pack. Miss Woodley’s carriage would arrive the next day to take them to Gretna Green. After that, he didn’t care what his son did with his dissolute life. He tamped down the painful memory and raised his eyes to the gilded ormolu clock on a table. “Why has Lester not returned? The cellars are well-stocked with brandy. You’d think my man was distilling it in the kitchen.” Lord Ralston shifted his position and scanned the room. “You should let him go, but not for being tardy with your brandy.

This room looks like a brisk wind blew through here. Why do you not have him tidy up? Or hire yourself a suitable housekeeper and a couple of maids. This mess is unworthy of you, Cardmore.” Andrew scoffed. “I’ve only been in residence a week. Besides, I care not. As long as I have something for this pain, Lester can do as he pleases.” “You’ve changed.” “Have I?” “You were once quite fastidious. I remember when you took a rag to your own Hessians because your valet didn’t shine them to your satisfaction.

” He wrinkled his nose. “And you bathed more often than was healthy.” “I bathe.” “I daresay, it wasn’t recently.” The door opened, and Lester entered with a bottle and two glasses on a tray. “Join me, Ralston?” “I think not. It is barely noon.” He glanced again around the room. “I’ll take my leave now. I promised to call on my aunt in Painswick and will stay the night.

I’ll return tomorrow. Let’s go to the village in the afternoon. I’ve heard a brawler from the Lake District is to take on our local man.” “A mill? In our village? How droll.” “The brawl is part of the annual fair, the one that celebrates the harvest, meager as it was during this horrid year. Surely you haven’t forgotten. Even if your pious father never took you to the fair as a child, I’m sure you found a way to go when you reached maturity. Why don’t I meet you there around two? It would do you good to get out of this pigsty.” Could he? If he had his medication, the pain wouldn’t be too great, and it might be good to get out in the fresh air for a few hours. He’d always enjoyed mills.

“I believe I’ll take you up on that, Ralston. But come to the house first. We’ll ride over together.” “Excellent.” He gave him a mock salute and sauntered out of the room. Lester refilled the already-empty glass, and Andrew drank deeply. “Ah, that takes off the edge.” “Will that be all, sir?” “No. Take Ralston’s chair. I want to ask you something.

” “Very good, sir.” The valet sat, his back stiff. “Lester, am I a pig? You may speak freely.” “Of course not, sir.” His glance strayed to the open door. Andrew put his elbows on his knees and leaned forward with his chin in his hands, so he could study his valet’s face. “Lord Ralston claims my personal habits have deteriorated.” “You have not changed at all since I have known you, sir.” “That’s only one month.” “It is, milord.

” “Well, then, I wish to turn over a new leaf. Bring the copper tub to me and hot water.” “Me, sir?” “Get the footmen to do it.” “You haven’t any.” “Then tell the stablemaster to send a groom to help, and by all means, go into the village first thing in the morning and hire a footman. Maybe a housemaid, too. Cook can advise you. I’ll be damned if I’ll let my best friend sneer at my less than fastidious habits, as he so nicely put it.” The valet raised his eyebrows. “You want me to offer employment? It’s not done.

” “I cannot do it in my present state, and I have no butler. That leaves you, Lester.” “What about Mr. Drake, your steward. Shouldn’t he be hiring staff?” Andrew rubbed his eyes. His brain had grown fuzzy of late. “Yes, yes. ’Tis Drake’s job. Deliver my message then.” Ralston was right.

He needed to change. Start his life again. Take an interest in his estate. Find a proper housekeeper and butler to run the household. When he’d sold out, he’d arrived home to an empty house, devoid of life and servants. What had happened to his father’s retainers? When he’d come home briefly to bury his father, they’d still all been here. Perhaps they had retired or found employment elsewhere. The only ones left were the stablemaster, a groom, and Drake, the steward. Even with the house closed, horses had to be cared for and tenants had to be managed. Drake had hired the cook, but was waiting for direction before bringing in any other staff.

He should have remembered. After my next dose of laudanum. I’ll think about it then. He poured brandy in his glass and welcomed the fog that dulled his brain. Perhaps a small nap before the tub arrived. He lay back against the cushions, and his thoughts turned to Emily. She’d be in London this time of year, enjoying the entertainments. Why hadn’t she married? She’d been the epitome of grace and beauty, a woman any man would be proud to call wife. Surely she’d had offers. You know why, you rogue.

Once the deed had been done, he’d brought Caroline here to Cardmore Hall and left her with Father, eager to escape. He’d cared not if Father and the Woodleys complained about his behavior. The only person he wanted to see was Emily. He owed her an explanation. When he’d presented himself at the Langston townhouse in London, her father had refused him entry, blistering his ears with well-chosen words before having him unceremoniously thrown out. Not that I blamed him. He winced as he rose, his shoulder on fire. The damn wound should have healed by now. Maybe he should ride to London and consult one of the Harley Street physicians. The local surgeon had poked and prodded the wound and declared himself totally perplexed.

Except for a disfiguring scar, the wound seemed healed, he’d said. There should be no pain. But there was. He made his way into his bedchamber, his forehead clammy. Perhaps the bath would help. Until then, he needed to lie down. A large gray-and-white tabby with a stub for a tail jumped up beside him and curled next to his body. He’d found it shivering and starving in the barn when he first arrived and had promptly brought it into the house. The old cat had a damaged shoulder, causing her to walk with a limp. Kindred spirits, that’s what we are, girl.

The cat closed her eyes and began to purr. Andrew reached over and stroked the animal’s soft coat. Perhaps he should return to society. Take up the life of a gentleman. Repair his relationship with Emily. They’d spent their childhood together. Perhaps they could be friends again. If only he was worthy, which he was not. Without disturbing the cat, he reached over and picked up the glass he’d placed on his bedside table, draining it as the welcome haze of inebriation washed over him. Tomorrow.

He’d think about all this tomorrow.

.

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