Prelude to a Scandal (Scandal Series)by Delilah Marvelle
Lady Justine is willing to trade her good name, her reputation and her place in London's gossip-hungry ton to secure her father's release from prison. But when the notorious Duke of Bradford counters her offer with a proposal of marriage, the stakes grow higher still. For while the smoldering lord is famous for his conquests, the man is oblivious to both her… See more details below
Lady Justine is willing to trade her good name, her reputation and her place in London's gossip-hungry ton to secure her father's release from prison. But when the notorious Duke of Bradford counters her offer with a proposal of marriage, the stakes grow higher still. For while the smoldering lord is famous for his conquests, the man is oblivious to both her devotion and her charms. And Justine is soon afraid she has wagered all for naught .
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Without a good chaperone, one might as well be dead. Remember, a chaperone is supposed to be another thinking head.
How to Avoid a Scandal, Author Unknown
With the assistance of her driver, Mr. Kern, Justine stepped out of the coach and swept down onto the pavement of the square. She eyed the shadowed, four-story alabaster home, noting that most of the windows were as dark as the night around her. Sparse golden light shone through only a few glass panes on the far side of the home.
An ominous feeling crawled through her. Despite countless letters to the duke, pleading for at least one audience before the actual wedding, he had responded to each and every letter with a firm, "No. Not until the appointed time of the wedding." Calling upon him repeatedly had not yielded much more. He simply would not see her. Which worried her to no end. Was he in fact more disfigured than he'd originally let on?
As if that weren't distressing enough, there appeared to be complications surrounding her father's release, even though her wedding was only a short week away. And whilst the duke's solicitor had repeatedly assured her everything would be resolved, Justine needed more than mere verbal assurance.
Mr. Kern lingered beside her and cleared his throat, awaiting payment for his many weeks of service. He eyed her reticule. "Milady." He pointed. "I thought this was tah be a friendly social call."
Justine glanced down at the ribbon-drawn reticule slung around her wrist. The rosewood handle of her father's pistol stuck straight out, like a gopher's head from a mound.
She feigned an apologetic laugh. "It is a friendly social call, Mr. Kern. This is simply to intimidate the servants. Which reminds me" She yanked out the ivory flask of gunpowder from her reticule.
Mr. Kern paused. Then squinted at her.
After several failed attempts to uncork the flask, Justine huffed out a breath and dug her fingertips beneath the rim, giving it one last solid tug. Her straining arms jumped and the cork popped off.
Mr. Kern scrambled back as a huge plume of gunpowder blanketed her face, cloak, gown and the street, filling her nostrils with a gritty, sulfur-penetrating residue. She gagged as the flask slipped and clattered to the pavement, and frantically brushed the soot from her face and bosom. Of all the blasted
She paused, glimpsing the flask on its side in the shadows. Oh, no. Plucking it up, she tapped at what little remained in the vessel and groaned. How quickly she'd become like the rest of the women in London. Completely useless. Unable to even prime a pistol. Her father would have been horrified at her incompetence.
Exasperated, she shoved the expensive flask into Mr. Kern's waiting hands. "Here you are, Mr. Kern. Pure ivory and worth well more than I owe you. This will officially bring your service to an end. I thank you."
"Much obliged." He tipped his wool cap, then made his way back to the hackney, inspecting his newly acquired trinket.
If only the wardens at Marshalsea were as easy to please and get along with.
Justine sighed, and eyed the pistol in her hand. She supposed she could bluff her way in. That way, when the authorities did arrive, no one could argue it was loaded. Cocking it, she tucked the pistol back into her reticule and marched with full intent toward the dimly lit house, past the wrought-iron gate which had conveniently been left open.
She hurried up the wide, shadowed steps and halted at the entrance. Swiping away whatever gunpowder she could still feel on her face, she drew in a calming breath and used the knocker. Then the bell.
Footfalls echoed from the interior. The bolts were eventually unfastened and the door to the house fanned open, filtering soft golden light across the wide steps.
A massive, blond-haired gentleman appeared. One she hadn't seen throughout all her earlier attempts to get in. His wide chin jutted over his tight collar, whilst his round belly threatened to pop every button off the embroidered waistcoat protruding from his dark livery. He stepped toward her, his hefty frame towering a good two heads over her own.
Her heart raced as she stepped back. What, by gad, had his mother been feeding him? Clearly, not the usual English fare.
She counterfeited a quick smile and hoped that, despite his imposing stature, this particular new servant was going to be more cooperative than the rest. "Forgive the hour, sir, and my overall appearance, but I was hoping for an audience with His Grace. Would you please inform him that his fiancée, and future duchess, is here and that it is most urgent?" She hesitated, then repeated, "Most urgent."
The man's beady blue eyes raked the length of her. "Have you been sweeping chimneys, my lady? I hope all is well."
He was about as amusing as her situation. "I shall be in much better spirits once I speak to His Grace." She tried not to sound too agitated, or he wouldn't let her in.
He sighed. "As the previous butler may have already informed you, my lady, His Grace will not see you or anyone else until the appointed time of the wedding. He does, however, wish to assure you all is well." He bowed, stepped back and slammed the door shut.
Justine gasped with indignation. "All is not well, sir! I demand you open this door. Sir!" She paused and blinked at the door, which so rudely remained closed. Was this any way to treat a future duchess?
She huffed out a breath and glanced back toward the shadows of manmade iron fences and stone buildings that rose above the trees beyond. Though she'd always suppressed her true feelings of not belonging to this strange London world, it was time to admit that the men in England really weren't as refined and civilized as they claimed to be. If they were, they would not be caging an old man for having an opinion contrary to societal norms, and they most certainly would not be leaving a young woman on a doorstep, in the dark, alone. Whilst assuring her all was well.
The cowardly side of her wanted to dash straight into the night and disappear onto the next ship to Cape Town to avoid this entire mess.
But her heart and soul knew what needed to be done. Her father needed her, and she was not about to wait until the day of the wedding to discover her father was set to languish in Marshalsea for the rest of his days.
She needed reassurance. And she was going to get it. Setting her chin, Justine whirled back to the door and rattled the knob, only to discover it had already been bolted. Narrowing her gaze, she grabbed hold of the knocker and repeatedly pounded the brass ring against the block, hoping everyone's head inside the house was pounding right along with it. She was not going home and didn't give a ripe fig if all of London talked about it for ten full years.
The door eventually reopened.
Justine drew back her hand and announced in her sternest tone, "Name your price, sir, or I shall be forced to name mine."
The butler smirked, clearly amused, and adjusted his snug livery. "I can assure you, my lady, I am not one to be bought."
"Whilst I can assure you, sir, I am not one to be turned away." Justine pulled out the pistol from her reticule and pointed it straight at his chest. Her forefinger played with the trigger as she boldly stepped toward him, wishing it really was loaded. "I recommend you step aside." If need be, she'd thwack him on the head with the butt of her pistol and dash right in.
The man froze and wrinkled his pudgy nose as if realizing the residue dusting her entire frame was gunpowder. He scrambled backward and silently extended his thick, gloved hand toward the hall behind.
"Your cooperation is greatly appreciated." She entered the large hall, still keeping the pistol pointed at him. Her heeled slippers clicked across the Italian marble floors as the delicate, sweet aroma of cigars teased her nostrils. She sniffed. Since when did Bradford smoke cigars?
A rapid, bristling sound caused Justine to snap the pistol toward the candlelit receiving room on the left. She paused and blinked in astonishment.
For there, on all fours, was a young male servant in full livery wearing a ruffled, white apron. And of all things, he was scrubbing the floor as though he were a housemaid!
The young servant paused, clearly sensing she was watching him. He heaved out a long breath, as if his mother had died, then dipped the horsehair brush into a pail of soapy water and resumed his rapid scrubbing.
The butler shut the door and nervously glanced back at her as he fastened each bolt. "I hope you do not mind waiting whilst I inform His Grace of your arrival."
Justine swiveled the pistol back to the butler. "So His Grace can altogether escape through a back door? I think not." She readjusted her grip on the pistol, trying to exude deadly confidence, and purposefully stared him down. "You'd best take me to him."
She stepped farther back toward the curving mahogany stairwell and eyed the gray silk lampas walls decorated with gold framed mirrors and oversized family portraits.
Nothing had changed. What is more, it reminded her of the first night she'd stepped into this house. That enchanted night when she and her parents had privately dined with the duke in honor of their return from Africa.
She'd been so impressed. But what had impressed her far, far more than the massive, ornate home that nightand thereafterwas the Duke of Bradford himself. A more dashing, charming and intelligent man she'd never met. Of course, her parents had argued that anything would have been impressive to an eighteen-year-old who'd been residing in canvas tents and grass huts since the age of seven.
The butler blew out an exhausted breath and stalked past. He gestured toward the stairwell. "If you please, my lady. The duke's bedchamber is this way."
Justine's heart skipped as she gawked up after the butler, who was already mounting the stairs. Circumstances aside, was it crass to admit to herself that she'd always wondered what the duke's bedchamber looked like?
The butler paused midway up the winding staircase and glanced down at her.
She cleared her throat and lifted the hem of her gown from around her feet, trying to remain calm. She was not going to melt into a puddle. After all, a woman had to retain some amount of pride and dignity, no matter how scandalized she was.
Still keeping the pistol leveled at the man, she moved up the stairs. When she alighted onto the landing, she bustled straight down the wide corridor, trying to catch up with the butler who had left her far behind, moving with the grace of an elephant at full speed.
The silence grew more pronounced. Glancing toward a passing row of portraits, Justine slowed her pace and paused before a rather stunning portrait of a young woman dressed in a flowing, white brocaded gown. Her large gray-blue eyes stared at Justine with a wrenching beauty that managed to be both provocative and shy.
The candles set within the wall sconces emitted just enough light to cast a perfect, warm glow upon the woman's face, whilst shadowing the rest of the painting. Her pale skin was smooth, and gathered blond curls framed her face. A playful little smile lingered on her lips.
Justine lowered the pistol and blinked. Who was this beautiful woman to Bradford? A sister or a cousin she did not know of? Or was itheaven forbidhis mistress? He was indeed always known to surround himself with less than reputable ladies, which sadly, if she believed the rumors, had brought him to his current physical state.
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