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Nothing But Scandal
By Allegra Gray
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2009 Allegra Johnston
All right reserved.
Chapter OneLondon, April 1814
Family expectations-and the guilt that came with not living up to them-were going to be the death of Elizabeth Medford.
Given that her father, Baron James Medford, had hardly been a bastion of familial responsibility himself, having amassed a mountain of gaming debts prior to his untimely death, it seemed unfair that the remaining members of the family should expect that she, Elizabeth, would salvage them by marrying Harold Wetherby. Her third cousin might have a respectable income, but the memory of Harold's sweaty hands pawing her at a picnic when she'd been a mere fourteen years old was enough to convince her she simply could not, could not marry him.
And since she'd otherwise been a resounding failure in the marriage mart, Elizabeth had devised a new plan-one to be implemented that very morning.
The moment breakfast was over, she'd hastily ushered her younger sister, Charity, and their maid, Emma, out the door of the Medford town house and into Hyde Park for a stroll, ignoring her sister's nonstop stream of questions as they readied themselves.
They'd been in the park no more than a minute before Charity faced Elizabeth and thrust out her chin. "Now will you tell me what's going on? If you continue to tease me this way, I shall simply perish." She placed a melodramatic hand to her heart.
Elizabeth glanced behind them. Emma, acting as chaperone, trailed discreetly, close enough to keep up appearances but not to overhear conversation.
"All right. For the past weeks we've thought of only one thing: getting a man, any man but Harold, to propose marriage to me. Now that we're out of full mourning for father, Uncle and Mother are anxious to accept his suit. I am running out of excuses to delay. But perhaps there is another way out of this after all."
"I don't understand."
"Think. What does Harold stand to gain from marrying me?"
"Your connections. He wants respect, social advancement, obviously." Charity raised an eyebrow, making it clear she thought Elizabeth was cracking under the strain if she believed this was new food for thought.
"Exactly," Elizabeth confirmed with glee.
"I don't see where this is going."
"I don't want to marry Harold, right? Well, we were thinking I'd need a better offer in order to get out of it. But I don't. I simply need him to withdraw his offer."
"But what would make him do that? He already knows about father's financial situation, and even that miserable fiasco didn't make him cry off," Charity pointed out.
"No, it didn't, because, poor or not, I am still a respectable member of the ton."
Charity's eyes widened. "Ooohh. Elizabeth, I'm not sure I like what I think you're thinking."
Elizabeth ignored her. "If I were no longer respectable, if I were, say, ruined, Harold would withdraw!" She nearly tripped over a root on the path in her excitement over the idea.
"It's wonderfully daring," Charity conceded, not looking quite so pleased. "But how would you do it? And, oh, think what Mother and Uncle would do! They'd toss you out for certain. You'd be disowned, dishonored. Where would you go?" She tugged at her hair, an old habit and a sure sign of her concern.
"I could work for a living, I suppose." Elizabeth bit her lip, aware her plan had more bravado than substance. "I'd have to. I'm good with a needle, so I could work for a dressmaker. Or be a governess. Anything would be better than being married to Harold. I'd be forced to endure his touches and ..."
She shuddered, then fought to regain control of her emotions. Her little sister didn't need to know how badly their distant cousin frightened her. He'd tried to force his attentions on her years before, and now that she was actually within his reach, he would stop at nothing until she married him. Unless, of course, marrying her would thwart his grasping ambition and hurt his precious reputation.
There was, however, one problem. "It's you I'm worried about. My marriage was supposed to support you, too."
Charity patted her sister's arm, her eyes softening with understanding. "Do what you must, E., and don't worry overmuch about me. For heaven's sake, don't marry the beast just because he's offered to keep me fed and clothed.
"But in order for your plan to work, your reputation would have to be utterly destroyed, and soon. You seem to forget that in spite of Father's penchant for scandal and debt, you, Sister dear, have no such objectionable deeds to your name."
"So far," Elizabeth said.
Charity's eyes narrowed. "You've already thought this through. You're plotting something."
"Well, for heaven's sake, tell me! You know I can't stand it when you don't include me in your adventures." Charity nearly bounced in anticipation.
Elizabeth smiled serenely, though inside, her heart raced. "You didn't think we came to Hyde Park merely to stroll, did you? No, Charity, I've decided the best way to destroy my reputation-and in a way that will ensure Harold never again approaches me-is to be caught in a compromising situation. With a man."
Charity stopped in her tracks. "Elizabeth, you couldn't."
"But ... but," Charity spluttered, "you'd need a man willing to take part. No gentleman would ever do such a thing."
Indeed. No gentleman would.
Right on cue, Elizabeth spotted him. Alex Bainbridge, Duke of Beaufort, striding along an adjacent path. He was no gentleman. Even at this early hour, he had the sleek appearance of a night predator, a beautiful but deadly jungle cat. Since she'd held a tendre for him since childhood, following his every move with fascination, Elizabeth knew he had a reputation to match that of his predatory look-alike. It was also how she knew he had a habit of walking through the park at nearly the same time each morning.
"I'm going to do it."
"Now?" Charity squealed. "Wait. Are you sure there isn't some other way?"
"Now. Can you make yourself scarce?"
Charity glanced around. "Mary Sutherby and her sister are just over there. I'll join them. E., do be careful."
"Careful, Charity, is exactly what I am not going to be."
Her sister's eyes grew wide with apprehension and admiration. "In that case, good luck." She hurried away.
Elizabeth turned. One pointed look at Emma was enough to make the poor maid shrink even farther behind.
Elizabeth hurried just enough to intercept the duke as he passed her way. She tugged her walking costume a bit lower on her bosom, remembering her prey was accustomed to bold women. Tracking him down and initiating a conversation-let alone the one she planned-were bold moves she would have never considered even a week ago, but Elizabeth was desperate.
"Miss Medford?" He slowed his pace as she fell into step with him.
"Might I delay you a moment?" Her heart quickened at his proximity. She had to tilt her head up to meet his keen glance, and his thick dark hair fell forward to brush knife-sharp cheekbones as he bent his head in return. She swallowed weakly. Did he remember they'd waltzed at the Peasleys' ball? It had only been the highlight of her life.
"Of course. Do you need some sort of assistance?"
"Of a sort."
The duke looked around, as though there might be some emergency.
Elizabeth took a deep breath. How best to approach this? The etiquette books did not cover how to properly destroy one's reputation, only how to preserve it.
His dark brows drew together in question. Elizabeth swallowed hard. Best just to get it over with.
"Right. Well, thank you, Your Grace, for allowing me a moment of your time."
"A very brief moment." His features took on an expression of bored tolerance now that it was apparent no one was in dire distress.
"I'm not here to join the ranks of simpering females who usually surround you, hoping desperately for your hand," she announced bluntly, surprising even herself.
"No?" He gave her a lazy grin. "My skill at the waltz must be slipping. Usually it takes no more than that."
Absurdly pleased he remembered her, Elizabeth squelched the desire to respond in exactly the way she'd just promised not to.
"If it is not another dance you're after, and you've met no misfortune in the park, then how can I be of assistance?"
"Actually, I have a proposition for you."
"Really? A proposition from a lady? That hardly sounds proper." His voice was teasing, but his features were alert.
"Just wait until you hear it," she muttered.
The duke laughed, spearing her with a roguish glance. She felt a wicked thrill at what she was about to do.
"You see, my mother is forcing me to marry and ... never mind." She needn't bore him with details. "I would like you to ruin me."
"What!" The word was an explosion.
Elizabeth thrust out her chin.
"Let me get this straight. You want to be ruined?"
"By me." His face took on a masklike expression. Cynical appraisal replaced the open laughter of a moment before.
"Well, yes. I haven't much experience in such matters, but I thought you would know how to go about such a thing."
"I see. What's in it for me?" he asked bluntly.
Elizabeth fought down panic. She hadn't considered that. But now that she'd gone this far, the only thing to do was see it through. "Er, I imagine the benefit to you would be whatever it is gentlemen are usually after when ruining a woman."
The duke gaped at her.
"Of course," she challenged, determined to brazen it out, "if you're uncertain as to how to go about it ..." She knew he wasn't. There'd been rumors enough.
"It's not my knowledge in that area that gives me pause," he snapped. "It is the foolishness of your proposition. Do you even know what you are asking?"
She arched a brow. "I have a fairly good idea."
"Then you know what will happen to you."
"Absolutely." She smiled. He might not understand, but those consequences were exactly what she was hoping for.
"Sorry, I'm not interested." He turned to go. Elizabeth's mouth fell open. She'd been so sure this would work.
"Why not?" She couldn't help but ask.
He turned in the path, faced her squarely. "It may come as a surprise to you, but I'm not in the habit of seducing innocents, then failing to claim responsibility when I do so."
"I see." But she didn't. Hadn't he a reputation for just that sort of thing?
Heat flooded her cheeks. "I don't appeal to you in that way. Well, you wouldn't have to seduce me, then. We could simply have it whispered about-"
"I told you, I'm not interested." He glanced over his shoulder as though he had somewhere to be.
Crushing embarrassment swept through her, and her throat grew thick with the threat of tears. It was time to accept defeat.
"In that case, I thank you for your time, Your Grace. And I would appreciate it if you did not mention this, er, conversation, to anyone," Elizabeth said with the last scraps of dignity she could muster.
He gave her a stiff nod. She turned and fled as fast as her skirts would allow.
Alex stared at the quickly retreating redhead. The whole Medford family must be mad. It was the only way to explain it. Yes, he'd danced with her at the Peasleys' ball last week. She'd looked quite fetching, and a bit lonely. And, of course, he hadn't known who she was until too late.
He knew about loneliness, having grown up with it. But he'd never imagined the seemingly innocent girl he'd held in his arms had been planning to ask him to engage in an illicit liaison. Where on God's green earth had she gotten such an idea?
Alex knew he had a reputation, but all his affairs had been with widowed or otherwise independent women. Well, there had been that one unfortunate incident in his youth, but in that case, the young lady in question had actually been teaching him a thing or two, so he could hardly be blamed for her ruin. He knew how the ton gossiped, though.
To tell the truth, it bothered him. He'd have preferred Elizabeth held him in higher regard, if she was going to think of him at all. In spite of her family, he'd been attracted to her refreshing wit. But once again, his judgment failed him whenever the Medfords were involved.
Some men would consider ruining Medford's daughter the perfect revenge, or, as the feckless baron himself had suggested, an appropriate repayment of debt, but Alex was not one of them. There was no satisfaction to be had in getting revenge on a dead man.
If anything, he pitied Elizabeth. Because of her father's reckless management, she now suffered. He'd not failed to notice her brief mention of an unwanted engagement.
His pity, however, did not extend to the point that he was willing to become personally involved. In fact, he'd promised not to.
Alex blew out a breath. Fortunes were made and lost all the time, and Elizabeth's was certainly not the first noble family to find themselves on the outs.
What would the chit have done if he'd said yes? He grinned at the idea. He'd been tempted enough. Her wildly colored hair, her slim curves, and her defiant bravery held definite appeal.
No doubt she'd have tried to back out at the last minute.
Unless, he speculated, she was using him.
Perhaps she was foolish enough to believe that if he "ruined" her, as she'd so boldly offered, he'd be forced to offer for her in return. Perhaps her father had even planted the scheme in her head before his demise. It was a far more daring approach than the coquettish looks he endured from dozens of other hopeful misses, but he was not so easily fooled. And there was nothing Alex hated more than being used.
He ground a heel into the dirt, then strode down the path that would take him out of the park.
She had his reluctant admiration for her daring, but Elizabeth Medford's problems were her own.
"Elizabeth, a word with you," Lady Medford said, accosting her daughter the moment she stepped through the door to their town house. Charity, whom Elizabeth had rejoined at the park before seeking the sanctuary of home, heard their mother's tone and disappeared like mist in the wind, leaving Elizabeth to fend for herself.
All Elizabeth really wanted to do was run to her room and hide her mortification under her bedcovers, but instead she schooled her features into a polite expression. "Mother."
Lady Medford started down the hall, and Elizabeth resignedly followed, dragging her feet over the polished wood floors. They entered the salon, a room decorated in delicate shades of rose-a room Elizabeth had always found completely uncharacteristic of her mother.
Lady Medford turned and faced her daughter like a general dressing down a private. "It has come to my attention that you were seen dancing with the Duke of Beaufort."
Elizabeth stifled a groan. The duke was the last person she wanted to talk about right now.
"Yes, at the Peasleys' ball," she answered cautiously. Her mother had chosen not to attend, pleading a headache. Elizabeth had been chaperoned instead by Lady Tanner-an older lady of venerable reputation, who would surely exact a favor in return for having performed the duty of chaperone, in spite of having performed said duty in a rather lax fashion. Just one more thing Elizabeth had to look forward to.
"Is he pursuing you?"
Elizabeth's attention snapped back to her mother. "I don't believe so." She nearly choked on the understatement. Beaufort had made it abundantly clear how little intention he had of "pursuing" her.
"Good. I think it would be best if you did not get involved with him."
Now Elizabeth was truly confused, for Lady Medford's statement surely qualified her as the only mama in the entire ton who didn't want her daughter pursued by the extremely wealthy, handsome, and eligible Duke of Beaufort.
Reminding herself her mother had no idea of what had actually just transpired, she replied, "Mother, I assure you there was nothing untoward; it was merely a dance."
"Nonetheless, the man has a reputation. Why, he's practically predatory. Any involvement with him is likely to end in disappointment on your part."
Well, that much was true. But since when did Lady Medford care about her daughter's hopes getting crushed? That would be a new development in their relationship-if it was true.
"Also, I don't believe your father would have approved."
Elizabeth looked up sharply. Her mother had meticulously avoided unnecessary mention of her father since his death, so why would she bring him up now? None of this made any sense.
Excerpted from Nothing But Scandal by Allegra Gray Copyright © 2009 by Allegra Johnston. Excerpted by permission.
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