Sleepless in a Scandal – Eva Devon

Lady Felicity Drake, eldest daughter of the Earl of Penworth, rapped her knuckles along the carved armchair, calling for silence. A veritable cacophony filled the room as five, yes five, young women’s voices reached deafening proportions. The general din of her sisters in full argument volleying off the ceiling and windows was enough to give anyone else pause, but Felicity was quite accustomed to the sound. She rapped her knuckles again, “Quiet, please!” Even with her urging, it took several moments for them to cease and as everyone dimmed in their various contributions, her youngest sister, Augusta, grumbled, “It’s not even our fault we’re in a scandal,” before folding her arms and grudgingly listening. Felicity didn’t bother replying to Gus, since her younger sister had pointed out the obvious. “I call this first meeting of the Scandalous Daughters Society to order.” The sisters Drake had all been given a good deal of trouble in the past year and such trouble had taken its toll. Truth be told, several months had passed before they had all finally come to realize that their situation needed to be taken in hand. So, now in their country seat where they had been virtually banished, they were discussing how best to find a footing back into the society which had so ardently (and dare be said, gleefully) tossed them aside. Well, what could they expect when one’s father had to flee the country for buggery? Yes. Buggery. Felicity was not afraid of the word but society whispered it as though it were the most appalling of sins. Their father’s wife, not their mother, had become appalled by the poet’s ongoing scandalous behavior and had brought forth charges against her own husband for his shocking bedroom proclivities with her person. Since buggery was a crime and a hanging offense, the earl had had no choice but to run. And expose the family to gossip of the very worst sort.

Gossip which made the marriage mart a near impossibility. And loathe them or love them, marriage marts were essential for a young woman to find any sort of meaningful place in the world. Now, the girls were fairly wealthy due to the moneys their father’s new (and shocked) wife had brought to the marriage (their father had had sizable debts, necessitating a lucrative match), but they were sans character. And sans character, they were in serious societal trouble. For the English were very concerned about bloodlines. Much like their horses and their hounds, wives needed to breed often and breed well. The Penworth bloodline seemed to run hot. Very hot, indeed. Some might say too hot for the coldblooded English. Her new mother, the Countess Lady Anne Penworth, blamed their Italian grandmother.

In Felicity’s opinion the English had a dratted habit of blaming the Italians for anything that went amiss. Or the French. And if truth be known, they also had a French great-grandmother. The Drake girls were awash in passionate bloodlines. She drew in a slow breath, being the calmest of the lot, and surveyed Augusta, Penelope, Marianne, and Georgiana. They were all pleasing; two with dark hair, two with flaming red tresses and they all had slightly dusky complexions. A gift from their Italian grandmother. But they were all, well, odd. Their father had not found it necessary to raise them or educate them as other English girls. They’d never had a nanny or a governess.

In fact, one could claim the Drake girls had run wild. Now, that wildness, once so enjoyed by all of them, was a serious hindrance. The English didn’t like wild in their women. “Look Felicity,” said Augusta, Gus to anyone she liked, and the youngest. “This is all nonsense. We needn’t marry. We needn’t give in. Why don’t we all just live here in solidarity and tell the world to sod off?” Felicity resisted the urge to cover her eyes with her hands. Gus was quite a bluestocking, well they all were in their own ways, but Gus was the most rebellious. The most outrageous.

“If you don’t way to marry Gus, you don’t have to. But the rest of us would like husbands and children.” Gus blinked her shockingly blue eyes. “Why?” Penelope laughed, her dark curls bouncing. “I for one, don’t plan on sleeping alone for the rest of my life, you know.” “And I quite liked society, the balls and all that,” admitted Marianne. “Can’t have that, banished up here in Yorkshire. You might like striding about the moors, Gus, but all that wind whipping and wailing by the rocks, isn’t for me.” Gus scowled. “I don’t wail.

” Felicity rolled her eyes. “My dear sisters, you miss the point entirely. We must find some sort of footing in society or we face growing mold here in this old house, or we might as well all join Papa in Venice.” All of her sisters gave a visible shudder. It wasn’t that their father, Victor Drake, Earl of Penworth, was a terrible man. Quite the opposite. He was capable of noble acts. But he was also a drunkard and given to shouting and bringing women home at all hours. Up until one year ago, he’d been the most celebrated and feted poet in London. Then it had all gone horribly wrong.

Frankly, Felicity couldn’t blame Lady Anne, the countess, for throwing their father to the wolves. He never should have married such a mouse of a woman. But she’d had the money he needed and he’d been desperate. Poor Anne. Poor them! Felicity cleared her throat. “As much as I’d like to believe we could reenter society entirely on our own, I know this would be impossible. We’re perilously close to being social pariahs. We need backing. We need support.” “We need a swift kick in the bum and a realization that society is the devil,” intoned Gus.

“Yes, thank you Augusta,” replied Felicity, her fingers itching to strangle her sister. “But as discussed before, we have made a pact that we will all find husbands—“ “Or lovers,” chirped Augusta, clearly loving her role as troublemaker. “Not lovers!” shouted Penelope, her brow furrowing. “That would make matters worse for all of us!” Felicity threw up her hands. “We will all make advantageous marriages which will ultimately give us freedom. Being a spinster is not very freeing. You know this Augusta.” “Perhaps, but I’m not going to beg some proper man to save me,” Augusta protested. Felicity sighed. Had she ever been that young? At twenty-two, she felt ancient which, of course, she wasn’t but she was a good deal more mature than Augusta’s eighteen years.

“None of us are going to beg. But we will use any means necessary.” “Including entrapment,” piped Georgiana with a dangerous glimmer in her eyes. Felicity shifted uncomfortably on her chair. She didn’t particularly care for the idea of entrapment but she wasn’t going to tell her sister no. They were in dire straits. “Hopefully, it won’t come to that,” she hedged, “but in the meantime, I have sought out help.” “Help?” queried Marianne. “Who would help us?” demanded Georgiana, who had been the closest to their father and the most inclined to follow in his poetic footsteps though, at present, she was quiet about it. Felicity knew George was the most resentful of their father’s flight.

Felicity stood and strode slowly over to the door which led into a small, adjoining room. Taking her courage in hand, she opened it. “Sisters, Lady Melbourne, The Viscountess of Ashbury.” The girls grew immediately quiet. Lady Melbourne strolled into the room. Her golden turban, adorned with peacock feathers, glinted in the otherwise dreary house. Her gown, rich sea green, shone with expense, and her beautiful ivory skin seemed to glow despite her advanced years. Quite simply, Lady Melbourne was one of the most powerful women in society and she was a great admirer of their father. She was also Lady Anne’s aunt. She strode in, her cane gripped firmly in one beautifully smooth hand.

Years ago, she’d been wounded in a wild riding accident and had never been able to walk unsupported since. Imperious as a queen, she strode to the fireplace, pulled on the bell pull and quietly waited. Ambrose, their butler, entered followed by a footman. Each carried a large silver tray with buckets of champagne and caviar. The girls all gaped. Such fare had been unavailable to them since their father’s departure and Lady Anne’s defection to her mother. The money which was theirs upon marriage was untouchable and so they had been living in genteel poverty these last months. As Ambrose poured out six glasses, Lady Melbourne arched a silvery-blonde brow. “Dear girls,” she drawled. “You have all been cast down by a family member of mine, not entirely through her own fault, but by her firm conviction she could change your father.

Your father is a bastard. An absolute bastard. But a glorious bastard. He is a god among men and I find I cannot allow you all to suffer because he cannot act as mortals must. So, I will take you in hand and marry you all off, ensuring your position in society.” Gus folded her arms across her pert bosom while Marianne, Georgiana, and Penelope grinned. Felicity felt a wave of relief. She’d written to Lady Melbourne two weeks ago asking for advice. Within a week, she’d received a message delivered by a liveried footman. Lady Melbourne was coming and she was coming with a plan.

Ambrose and the footman passed out the glasses. Lady Melbourne raised hers. “It shall not be easy and you must do exactly as I say. But despite your reputations, I promise that by the end of the Season, you each will have found a husband, and you will all be ensconced as leaders of the ton. What say you?” “Huzzah!” said Penelope. “Yes, General,” replied Georgiana with a mock salute which led to a laugh from Lady Melbourne. Marianne nodded enthusiastically. Gus narrowed her eyes. “I’m not marrying some boring old toff.” Lady Melbourne raked her eyes up and down Gus then pronounced, “Dear girl, no boring old toff would have you, impertinent thing that you are.

” Gus blushed. Felicity bit back a laugh. She loved her younger sister but it was nice to see someone who wouldn’t put up with her unabashed silliness. “And you, Felicity?” Lady Melbourne asked. “You’ve organized your little Scandalous Daughters Society. What do you say?” She lifted her own glass and smiled, “When do we start?” Chapter 2 Lord William Marksborough, Marquess of Talbot, loathed balls. He hated the posturing. The overheating. The mothers and their sheep-brained daughters. But most of all he hated squiring his sister to such dos.

Surely, one day, some day, any day soon, his sister would find a proper husband. She’d been proposed to five times. Between her and William, they’d rejected the prospects. His sister wasn’t going to marry just any fool. Of that he was sure. She needn’t cast herself away on a bad match and he’d seen too many bad matches to let his sister throw herself away. Still, it meant he was stuck, wadding through feathers and fluffy-gowned ladies almost nightly during the Season. There wasn’t enough wine in the world. So, generally he didn’t bother with it. Better to keep his head and avoid entrapment himself.

After all, he was a very good prospect himself. He knew it. London knew it. Certainly all those mamas and their daughters knew it. It was a bit like playing a childhood game of Sardines, desperately trying to avoid being found. His sister had a chaperone. So, as soon as he’d brought her, he found a quiet corner and kept away from the determined, marriage minded set until they could all leave and he could head to his club or go out to a place that was a might more pleasant for him and his friends. Tonight was no different. He’d ensconced himself in a room not too far from the ballroom but far enough that it was lit only by firelight and was satisfactorily quiet, enabling him to sit in the open window. He could look out at the dark garden, contemplate life, and do a bit of reading in the faint, flickering, reddish light.

Footsteps thudded down the hall and he pulled the velvet curtain to hide himself. The door opened and said footsteps trotted in. There was slight panting and then another set of footsteps followed the first in. Oh bloody hell, he hoped he wasn’t about to bear silent witness to a tryst, but then again the panting didn’t sound at all amorous and then, suddenly, there was a female exclamation of dismay. “Lord Trumbold, go away!” “What a chase, you delicious filly. Now, hold still.” William groaned inwardly. Why? Why did such things have to happen in the room he’d hidden in? But then the crack of a slap cut the silence. A growl of anger came from the man and there were sounds of a scuffle. “Little slut,” the lord growled.

“I’ll teach you to lead me on.” “You’re drunk, my lord,” she replied tersely. Before another word could pass, William whipped the curtain open. They didn’t notice, so engaged were they in their altercation. Red faced, jowls quivering, and ponderous on his bandy legs, Lord Trumbold held the young woman pinned with her arms behind her back. The older, corpulent lord was breathing down on the girl, his intent clear. Unaware of William’s presence, the old lord slurred, “No one turns me down. Especially not a trumpeted tart with a father who’ll bugger anything that stands still.” As Trumbold lowered his head, clearly ready to smear his lips over hers, William readied to attack. But before he could cross the room, the girl lifted a slippered foot and stomped on Trumbold’s boot.

As the old man groaned, she leaned forward and bit his arm. A yelp of dismay passed Trumbold’s fleshy lips but he didn’t release her, surprisingly strong for such a drunk man. “Your father owes me ten thousand pounds, girl,” he sneered. “And you’re going to pay by marrying me or here and now pleasing me. Makes no difference.” She spat in his face. In those quick seconds, William found himself admiring the girl’s pluck. William slipped out of the dark shadows and said coldly, “Unhand the lady.” Trumbold swayed then laughed. “Lady? Do you know who this is?” “No,” William said flatly.

“We haven’t been introduced. But I know you, you sick old bastard. Let her go.” Trumbold blinked and swayed again. “I say, who’s there?” Bad eyesight was apparently on the list of the man’s shortcomings. William stepped further toward the firelight. “Talbot,” he slurred. And with that, somehow the girl got her hand free and she popped Trumbold’s jaw. Much to William’s shock, Trumbold fell like a bulbous tree. She brushed her hands off then stepped over the body.

She turned to William. “Do you think we should call a physician?” He stared at her, transfixed. Black hair coiled about her head and her eyes, a strange violet-blue shone with no fury but rather a sort of plucky acceptance of the bad behavior of men. Her simple, but beautiful, white gown slipped over her body in the sylphlike fashion of the day. Voluminous but dampened fabric couldn’t hide her silhouette in the firelight. She was rather average in height, but the curves of her body couldn’t be ignored. The girl, woman, was lovely. And more so for the way in which she’d so easily shucked off her discomfort. William tore his gaze away and stared at the body of the fallen lord. “I doubt you’ve killed him.

” “Pity,” she replied with the faint curl of a lip. “His death would have led to a good many questions,” he couldn’t help pointing out. “I’m accustomed to questions and courts.” “Are you, by God?” he declared, amazed at her admission. She bit down on her lower lip as if regretting her confession then she sighed and continued “No use pretending otherwise. I’m Lady Felicity,” she raised her chin defiantly, “The Earl of Penworth’s daughter.” And then she stuck her gloved hand out towards him as if daring him not to shake it. Given the oddity of the situation, he allowed himself a low whistle of amazement. He assessed her again. She had the look of that blackguard, Penworth.

But it never would have occurred to him she’d have the courage to face the ton after her father’s flight. He took her hand and gave it a firm shake. “My admiration, Lady Felicity. You’re a tough little thing, aren’t you?” If possible, she stood a little taller. “Life has made me such, but I do not think I am bitter.” “No,” he said with increasing admiration. “I can’t say that you are.” And she wasn’t. Quite the opposite. She didn’t appear angry.

She just seemed to have the air of one who got on with things. “May I ask how the devil you’re here?” he asked with unintended bluntness. The last he had heard, the Drake sisters had been summarily tossed from society. Her brows rose ever so slightly at the rudeness of his question. “Do I have the plague? Should I be banished, sir?” He coughed. “Do forgive me, that’s not—“ Her brows rose a trifle higher. “Well, yes then,” he said truthfully. “I am amazed that you’re brazening it out. Most women don’t have the guts, you know. Their friends are usually ready to shred them once they’ve been ruined.

” She smiled. “Brazening it out? I quite like that. And you must have a very low estimation of women.” “I? Never say so. They are delightful creatures though not very constant. Except for my sisters. My sisters are all wonderful” She gave him an odd look. “I’m sorry you feel thus about women, but I am glad you do admire your sisters.” He smiled slowly, suddenly wishing to see if he could ruffle her so calm feathers. “I adore them.

However, the weaker sex has its shortcomings, but then men aren’t saints.” Her whole body tensed and she looked like she was about to give him a blistering set down. “How true, my lord.” Hmmm. That wasn’t the response he was expecting. He’d been certain that the word weaker would have had her giving him a good talking to but then. “Ah,” he said. “You’re husband hunting.” “Being of the weaker sex, I am amazed you think women can hunt at all, my lord. Surely, we wait, cowering, to be conquered and taken?” He choked on a laugh.

“I’ve seen what happens to men who try to conquer and take you, Lady Felicity.”

.

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