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Wicked Gentlemanby Jane Feather
Bestselling author Jane Feather brings to life the glamour, sophistication, and intrigue of Regency-era London in this captivating novel of unexpected passions and dangerous secrets.
Pooling their meager resources, Lady Cornelia Dagenham, her sister-in-law Aurelia, and their friend Liv Lacey arrive in London's Cavendish Square to spend a month at the home Liv… See more details below
Bestselling author Jane Feather brings to life the glamour, sophistication, and intrigue of Regency-era London in this captivating novel of unexpected passions and dangerous secrets.
Pooling their meager resources, Lady Cornelia Dagenham, her sister-in-law Aurelia, and their friend Liv Lacey arrive in London's Cavendish Square to spend a month at the home Liv has just inherited. But why anyone would show a fervent interest in purchasing the rundown property particularly the arrogant Viscount Bonham, who clearly could afford the finest of homes is a puzzle to Cornelia. His charms are undeniable, though and Cornelia finds her resistance to this mysterious stranger falling away...as a sparking passion clouds her view.
But their affair may place her and her friends in danger as Harry Bonham sweeps her into the sparkling whirl of high society. Leading a double life as a code breaker for the Crown, Harry is a man of many secrets. Is it Cornelia whom he truly desires, or something hidden in the house on Cavendish Square?
Read an Excerpt
Absolutely out of the question." The emphatic statement was accompanied by an equally emphatic palm slapping onto the cherrywood table.
There was silence. The four elderly men sitting along one side of the table regarded the woman seated opposite them with expressions of serene confidence. Judgment had been pronounced by the patriarch, there was nothing more to be said.
Cornelia Dagenham looked down at the deeply polished surface of the table, thoughtfully examining her companions' bewhiskered reflections. They all radiated the pink-cheeked untroubled certainty of those who had never faced a moment's opposition or an instant of want in all their privileged years.
She raised her head and gazed steadily across the table at her father-in-law. "Out of the question, my lord?" Her voice held a note of faint incredulity. "I don't understand. A short sojourn in London is hardly an outlandish proposal."
It was the old earl's turn to look incredulous. "My dear Cornelia, of course it is. Never heard such an outlandish proposal." He glanced to either side, seeking confirmation from his peers.
"Quite right . . . quite right, Markby," murmured his immediate neighbor. "Lady Dagenham, you must see that it would be quite improper for you, a widow, to set up house in town."
Cornelia twisted her fingers together in her lap to keep them from drumming her impatience on the tabletop. "I was not suggesting setting up house, Lord Rugby, merely visiting London with a close friend and my sister-in-law for a few weeks. We would put up at Grillons Hotel, which you must admit is the height of respectability. We are all past the age of discretion, all perfectly capable of chaperoning ourselves without causing a raised eyebrow, even if we were interested in taking part in the season, which we are not. It will be educational for the children "
"Nonsense," the earl of Markby interrupted, slapping the table again. "Utter nonsense. You and your children belong here. Your place is to supervise the care of Stephen's son and heir, my heir indeed, until he's ready to go to Harrow. And that care is to take place at Dagenham Manor as his father would have wished."
Cornelia's lips tightened, and a tiny muscle in her cheek jumped, but she kept her voice quiet. "May I point out, my lord, that Stephen left the sole guardianship of our children to me. If I consider a trip to London to be in their best interests, then that is my decision, not the family's."
The earl's pink complexion darkened to a deep red, and a vein stood out on his temple. "Lady Dagenham, I will brook no opposition in this matter. As his trustees, we are responsible for Viscount Dagenham, my grandson, during his minority "
"You are mistaken, my lord," Cornelia interrupted with an upraised hand. She was very pale now, and her eyes, usually a warm and sunny blue, were bleached with a cold anger. "I and only I am responsible for my son during his minority. That was a decision my husband and I made together." She placed her hand in her lap, holding herself very still, her eyes never leaving the earl's.
He leaned forward, and his own gaze was narrowed as he stared at her. "That may be so, madam, but your trustees hold the purse strings. You can do nothing without funds, and I promise you, ma'am, those funds will not be released for such an irresponsible jaunt as this."
"Indeed, Cornelia, do but consider." A new voice joined the confrontation, but with a conciliatory edge to it. "You have no real experience of town. A single debutante season cannot give you the sophistication, the town polish you would need for such an excursion."
Gray eyes twinkled, a soft hand reached across the table to pat her arm. "Be sensible, my dear. Three inexperienced women, country mice all of you, would be eaten alive. You could not possibly manage to get about town . . ." A hand waved expressively. "Just think of all the little details, all the financial issues of hotels and carriages . . . matters that you have never had to trouble yourself about. You cannot make such a journey without a man to advise you."
Cornelia rose from her chair. "You mean well, Uncle Carlton, and I thank you, but believe me, my lords . . ." Her cold gaze swept their faces. "You underestimate these particular country mice. I intend to take my children to London for a month, whether you release the funds from the trust or not. I bid you good afternoon."
She bowed, a mere inclination of her head, and swung away towards the door, ignoring the earl's outraged rumble of expostulation, the scrape of chairs on wood as the trustees came hastily to their feet.
She took satisfaction from closing the door very gently behind her, but then all pretense of calm left her. She stood still, drawing several deep breaths, then swore softly but with all the fluency of a mariner.
"I take it matters didn't go your way, coz?" A soft voice spoke from the shadows beneath the curving staircase.
As the man stepped into full view, Cornelia regarded her late husband's first cousin with a rueful half smile. Tall and gangly, with a loose-limbed athleticism, Nigel Dagenham was an attractive young man straddling the line between boyhood and manhood. His present costume of violently striped waistcoat and impossibly high cravat made him look a lot younger than he realized, Cornelia reflected, closing her eyes for a second against the dazzle of puce and purple. He would do a lot better to revert to the casual country styles he had worn before going up to Oxford.
"How did you guess?" she said with a shrug.
"Your admirable command of expletives," he returned. Then he grinned, looking even younger than before. "My uncle has a carrying voice, and I confess I was a little close to the door."
Cornelia couldn't help but laugh. "You had your ear pressed to the keyhole, you mean?"
"Not quite," he said. "But surely it comes as no surprise that the trustees would refuse to let you take Stevie out of their jurisdiction?" His slate gray eyes were sympathetic. He had experienced the family curb bit himself often enough to understand how Cornelia felt.
"It's just for a month," she stated with some vehemence. "For God's sake, I wasn't suggesting I take him to Outer Mongolia."
"No," he agreed with the same sympathy. "I'd offer to intercede for you, but I'm not exactly in the earl's good books at present."
"Outrun the carpenter again, Nigel?" she inquired, noticing that his eyes were somewhat shadowed, his expression a little drawn. Her cousin-in-law was always in debt, and she guessed that his general tendency to extravagance was exacerbated by running with an expensive crowd at Oxford, one a lot plumper in the pocket than he was. And one with a deal more interest in cards and horses than the pursuit of elusive Greek and Latin texts.
"Creditors are a little pressing," he conceded. "In fact . . . in fact a few weeks of rustication was . . . uh . . . suggested." He flipped open a snuffbox and took a leisurely pinch with an air of sophistication that somehow didn't convince Cornelia.
"So this rustication was not exactly of your own choice?" she said. "You were sent down by the college?"
He shrugged ruefully. "You have it, coz . . . and for the rest of the year too. But the earl doesn't know that little detail. He thinks I'm in debt only until next quarter day and that I decided for myself that I needed to be away from the fleshpots of the dreaming spires for a couple of weeks. So mum's the word."
"Of course." Cornelia shook her head in mock reproof. "You can butter him up, though, Nigel. You know you can. Just play the prodigal nephew as well as you always do and the earl will come round."
"Funnily enough that's exactly why I'm here. I'm escorting the old misery everywhere he goes," Nigel said with another irreverent grin. "Offering my services as his aide-de-camp, if you like." He adjusted the highly starched folds of his cravat, winked at her, and turned to enter the library where his elderly relatives were still congregated.
Cornelia dismissed Nigel's concerns as her own loomed large again. She crossed the stone-flagged hallway to the great front door of the earl of Markby's ancestral home. A leather-aproned servant set down the coal scuttle he was carrying and hurried to open the front door for her.
"Cold out there, m'lady," he observed.
Cornelia gave him a nod of acknowledgment as she walked out, drawing a deep breath, shaking her head vigorously as if to rid herself of something distasteful. She barely noticed the sharp February air, bare tree branches bending under the gusty wind as she marched across the graveled sweep in front of the house and headed out across the frost-crisp lawn.
She paused at a once ornamental fishpond, now looking neglected and uninviting beneath the leaden skies, and bent to pick up a sizable twig blown down from one of the tall beach trees that lined the driveway. Her defiant declaration of intent had been just words. Without funds, she could not possibly leave Dagenham Manor, with or without her children.
Making no attempt this time to moderate her voice, Cornelia swore a barnyard oath and hurled the stick into the green, stagnant waters of the pond. It relieved her feelings somewhat, at the same time making her realize how cold she was in her flimsy muslin and thin sandals. The cloak she'd arrived in was still in Markby Hall, but she couldn't face going back for it . . . not until that smug, patronizing quorum of trustees had broken up. She'd borrow a pelisse from Ellie for her two-mile walk home, back to Dagenham Manor.
She strode around the pond towards a break in the privet hedge that separated the formal gardens from the home farm. Beyond the fields of the farm stretched the gorse-strewn heath of the New Forest, which in turn gave way to the richly wooded acres that had been hunted by the kings of England since before William Rufus the Red, the son of William the Conqueror, lost his life to an ill-aimed arrow. Or maybe it was a well-aimed arrow, legend was uncertain on the matter, but the Rufus Stone a few miles away over the heath, still marked the spot where he'd died.
Cornelia hiked up her skirts as she picked her way across a damp pasture towards a stile that gave access to the narrow village lane. Once over, she headed, half-running against the cold, towards the village green and a pretty red-brick manor house set back from the lane. The house that had been her own childhood home. An idyllic childhood in many respects, in this village sandwiched between the Forest and the blue waters of the Solent. But rustic pleasures could pall eventually, and she was more than ready for a change of scene she reflected with a grimace as she raised her hand to the brass knocker.
"Eh, Lady Nell, catch yer death you will," the housekeeper scolded as she opened the door to the imperative knock. "Comin' out like that . . . might as well be in yer shift."
"Is her ladyship in, Bessie?" Cornelia hugged her arms across her chest.
"In the nursery, ma'am."
"Good." Cornelia hastened towards the stairs. "One of your sack possetts, Bessie, please."
The other woman smiled with obvious satisfaction. "Right away, m'lady."
Cornelia ran up the first flight of stairs, then hurried down a passage to the nursery stairs that led to the top floor. She could hear the voices of her sister-in-law and the nurse interspersed with the high-pitched stream of words pouring forth from Aurelia's four-year-old daughter. Despite her cold and her fury, Cornelia smiled. Little Franny was a force to be reckoned with when it came to holding the floor. The young Lord Dagenham had quickly learned that discretion was the better part of valor when it came to words with his younger cousin.
Cornelia pushed open the nursery door and was greeted with the blaze of the fire, and the wonderful smell of hot irons as the nursery maid went about her pressing.
"Well, Nell?" Lady Aurelia Farnham demanded instantly, disentangling her daughter's fingers from her pale blond hair before jumping to her feet. Her brown eyes shrewdly assessed her sister-in-law and made a fair guess at her mood.
Cornelia shook her head. The wind had snatched her hair from its pins, and she pulled them out as the honey-colored braids, almost long enough for her to sit on, fell from the once-neat coronet around her head.
"They refused?" her sister-in-law said, her head tilted slightly, her fair eyebrows lifted.
"Yes, Ellie, they refused," Cornelia confirmed bluntly. "I obey a peremptory summons to Markby Hall to discuss my request . . . it was not a request; it was a declaration . . ." Her voice rose a little with her rekindled anger, and her blue eyes glittered.
"In my letter I'd stated my intention and merely said I would need an extra sum released from the trust to fund the trip, as has always been the case when unusual circumstances have arisen . . . and what do they do? They treat me like some errant schoolgirl, and refuse point-blank to entertain the idea . . . and they'll say the same to you, so I wouldn't bother asking," she added, pacing agitatedly in front of the fire.
"Carlton Farnham could probably have been persuaded, so you might try an appeal directly to him since he's more your trustee than mine, but you know what influence the earl has over them all."
"Why did the earl refuse . . . on what grounds?" Aurelia asked, and instantly wished she hadn't, as her sister-in-law's expression became yet more ferocious.
"Ah, yes, the grounds," Cornelia said, bending to warm her hands at the fire. "Well, it would seem that we are country mice, lacking in sophistication, quite incapable of managing to conduct ourselves in town without male advice and support, and our one and only purpose in this life is to nurture our late husbands' children so that they can be educated to take their places in their fathers' world."
"But we have guardianship, Nell," Aurelia pointed out. "You did tell them that . . ." She saw Cornelia's expression. "Oh, yes, of course you did."
"I did," Cornelia agreed. She straightened and rubbed her upper lip before saying a mite defensively, "However, I told them that we were going with or without the funds." She shrugged. "We can't, of course, but it felt good saying it."
"Pompous bores," Aurelia said, then cast a quick guilty look at her daughter. The pompous bores in question held the purse strings for herself and her child just as they did for Cornelia and her offspring. It wouldn't do for the ever-babbling and always indiscreet Franny to repeat her mother's judgment in the middle of a family get-together.
"Let's go to my parlor." She linked arms with Cornelia and urged her out of the nursery.
The housekeeper bearing a tray had just reached the top of the nursery stairs as the two women appeared. "Oh, the sack posset," Cornelia declared. We're going to Lady Ellie's parlor. I'll take the tray, Bessie."
The housekeeper, panting slightly, relinquished her burden with obvious relief. Cornelia sniffed hungrily. "Spice cakes . . . you are a wonder."
Bessie merely nodded, accepting it as her due. "You drink some of that, Lady Nell. You're chilled to the bone."
"I intend to," Cornelia said with a warm smile as she headed down the stairs, followed by Aurelia. They went into a pleasant, slightly shabby room that overlooked the garden at the rear of the house. It had been Cornelia's mother's parlor, and Cornelia still felt as at home there as in her own parlor in Dagenham Manor. More so, if she was willing to admit it.
She set down the tray and poured the fragrant possett into two cups. She passed one to Aurelia, then deposited herself gracefully in a faded chintz armchair by the fire. She took a bite of spice cake and sipped from the dainty Sèvres cup, her frowning blue eyes fixed upon the fire. Her thick honey-colored plaits fell forward over her shoulders, making her look much younger than her twenty-eight years.
Aurelia regarded her over the lip of her own cup, her soft brown eyes probing gently. "Are you sure they can't be persuaded to change their minds?"
"Uncle Carlton perhaps, as I said," Cornelia mused. "But his voice doesn't count, and the earl won't budge."
Aurelia started to respond just as rapid steps sounded along the corridor outside and the door flew open to admit a whirlwind, bearing the fresh February cold in her pink cheeks and tousled blue-black hair. Even her thick black eyebrows seemed wind tangled.
"Do either of you have relatives you don't know you have?" Lady Livia Lacey demanded, flourishing a sheet of vellum, heavily inscribed.
Cornelia raised her eyes from the fire and turned in her chair. She exchanged a brief grin with Aurelia. Livia was not always overly logical. "If we did, Liv, we wouldn't know it by definition."
"Ah, no, I suppose not," Livia agreed. "Oh, is that sack posset? I'll borrow your cup, Ellie." She helped herself liberally and took a sip with an exaggerated groan of pleasure. "Pure heaven . . . it's like an ice house out there." She glanced at her friends, taking in their expressions. "Oh, the trustees wouldn't be persuaded?"
"No, in a word," Cornelia said shortly.
"So what's this about relatives you don't know you have, Liv?" Aurelia prompted, tucking a fine strand of her pale hair into its pins as she firmly changed the subject.
"Well, it seems I have . . . no had . . . an Aunt Sophia, some distant cousin of Father's," Livia said, flinging herself into a corner of the sofa. "Father's very hazy about the relationship . . . Lady Sophia was related to some half brother of his uncle's . . . something like that."
She waved the vellum at them. "Anyway, this is a letter from her solicitors. Apparently she died a few days ago and left me this house on Cavendish Square." She opened her hands. "Isn't that amazing? Why me?"
"Amazing," Cornelia agreed, sitting up straight in her chair. "A house on Cavendish Square is going to be worth quite a bit, Liv."
"Exactly," the other woman said with satisfaction. "And since at the moment I don't have two farthings to rub together . . ." She cocked her head like an inquisitive sparrow. "The solicitor says he's already been approached with an offer for the house, a good one, he says."
She bent her eyes to the vellum. "A Lord Bonham is interested in buying it apparently. This Mr. Masters, the solicitor, doesn't say how much he's offering, but if I sell the house, then I can invest the proceeds and that will give me an income . . . maybe even a dowry," she added.
"The spinster daughter of an impoverished country clergyman, however well-connected, doesn't have much in the way of marriage prospects. Breeding is no substitute for a portion," she continued with a melancholy sigh that was not in the least convincing.
"There's not much in the way of suitors in these parts," Cornelia pointed out with a touch of acerbity.
"No, you two got the only two possibilities," Livia agreed. "And now they're both dead . . ." She didn't complete her thought. "Sorry," she said. "Did that sound insensitive?"
"From anyone else it might have done," Aurelia said. "But we know what you mean."
"Anyway, Ellie and I have been resigned to our loss for nearly two years now." Cornelia turned her gaze back to the fire for a moment. Marriage to Stephen, Viscount Dagenham, had not been exactly a firework-filled union of passion, but they had liked each other well enough, had known each other from childhood, and she supposed they would have grown old together in solid companionship. Not an exciting prospect, certainly, but infinitely preferable to the dead end of widowhood.
She raised her head and met Aurelia's steady gaze and knew that her sister-in-law shared her thoughts. Ellie had been married to Cornelia's brother. Another safely solid marriage of convenience between family acquaintances, brought like her own to a violent end at the Battle of Trafalgar.
Of course, they both had their children. Her own two, Stephen at five and three-year-old Susannah, were her joy and delight, just as Franny was for Aurelia. But the joy and delight of children were no substitute for adult companionship and the pleasures of the bedchamber. She and Stephen may not have reached the heights, but there'd been some substantial satisfaction in the regular gratification of physical need. Her life, like Aurelia's, was now a dreary wasteland, the years stretching ahead in the stultifying comfort and financial dependence of trustee-controlled bereavement.
The prospect of a short visit to London had enlivened that future: the bustle of town, a social scene whose highlights were more than just hunting, whist parties, country dances, and the interminable gossip of an incestuously close-knit community insulated from the outside world.
A prospect that those damned trustees had dashed without a moment's hesitation.
Except . . . Her blue eyes swung towards Livia, a gleam in their depths that her friends recognized.
"What?" Aurelia demanded, leaning forward in her chair.
"I was just thinking," Cornelia murmured. "If we didn't have to pay for accommodation, perhaps we could scrape by in London for a month or so. My allowance is not lavish, but with care . . ." She raised her eyebrows, a slight smile now hovering on her well-shaped mouth.
"Mine too," Aurelia said, needing no further explanation. "If we pooled our resources . . . we'd only need one nurse for the children. Presumably there's a staff in this house, Liv? This Lady Sophia would have had a housekeeper, a cook, at least."
"I don't know, but I'd guess as much," Livia said, catching on just as readily. "And I really ought to go and inspect my inheritance, don't you think? I should have some idea of what it's worth, particularly since there's already a prospective buyer. It must be rather desirable if someone's interested in it so quickly."
"Absolutely, you should inspect it," Cornelia said firmly. "And you can't possibly go unchaperoned. What more respectable chaperones could you have than your widowed cousin and her widowed sister-in-law? And what more respectable residence for us all than the late Lady Sophia Lacey's house on Cavendish Square."
"True." Livia nodded, grinning broadly. "I might even decide not to sell the house. Maybe it would make better sense financially to keep it and hire it out. I have to consider all my options, don't I? The rental would give me a regular income, and it's in a good part of town. Plenty of people like to rent houses for the season."
"Of course that would depend on the condition of the house," Aurelia said. "No one of substance is going to hire a house that's falling to pieces."
"And I know nothing of this mysterious relative's circumstances," Livia mused. "She could have been destitute, living on crumbs in a collapsing attic."
"You're letting your romantic imagination get the better of you again, Liv," Cornelia stated. "I doubt she was destitute. She was a Lacey, when all's said and done."
"And Laceys are notorious penny-pinchers," Aurelia said. "With the notable exception of Liv." She chuckled. "For all we know, this distant relative could have been living on crusts while the house fell apart around her ears."
"Except that this Lord Bonham is so keen to buy it," Cornelia reminded them. "Unless he's simpleminded, he wouldn't be rushing to buy a pig in a poke." She reached over and took the letter from Livia's loosened grip. "Viscount Bonham," she murmured. "Never heard of the family."
She folded the sheet carefully. "Yes, I think it definitely behooves us all to go and inspect the property and . . ." Her eyes gleamed, chasing away all residue of her previous anger . . . "And the prospective buyer. I confess to being somewhat intrigued by this unknown gentleman. Who knows, Liv, he might be a prospect for you."
"A house and a husband," Livia declared, flinging up her hands in mock astonishment. "I doubt I could be that lucky."
"Well, you never know," Cornelia said cheerfully. "But first things first. You should write to the solicitors, Liv." She held up the letter to read the masthead. "Masters & Sons on Threadneedle Street . . . and tell them you're not interested in selling until you've considered all the options."
The gleam in her eye intensified. "Who's to say what those options might be."
Copyright © 2007 by Jane Feather
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Opportunity comes with Livia's inheritance of a rundown mansion in Cavendish Square, London. Livia also inherits an offbeat staff and remnants of the late, even more offbeat, Aunt Sophia. The plot turns on a coded thimble that a thief has hidden in the house, which widower Viscount Harry Bonham (secretly working for the Crown) needs to find and destroy. Instead he finds Cornelia, and that changes everything! A pleasant read; no more.
I enjoyed this book. She didn't bog me down with to much details on history and more dialogue about the characters. I would have liked to seen stronger personalities for the secondary characters especially the men but look forward to reading more about Cavendish Square. This is my first Jane Feather book and I will look to read others and compare.
I am a huge Jane Feather fan and had been waiting in anticipation for this book, but was not too impressed. Whereas past books have been able to keep me up past my bedtime and saddened when I got to the end, this one had me snoozing by chapter 2. I did finish the book, but it just lacked the zest of past J.F. books.
The characters are very well drawn and developed, and I found myself rooting for all of them. I liked the integrity they possessed. It was romantic and just a very enjoyable read.
A fun read - This is my favorite genre, but this was much better than most. The friendship between the three women was so authentic, I was captivated. Hence I can't wait for the next two books! I also enjoyed the more 'mature' romance scenes, not graphic of course but no blushing virgin either!
I liked the new characters. There was none of the 'going out of my mind with sexual tension' before the characters actually commit the act, which I found very refreshing. I liked how the cousin was introduced at the beginning as a secondary character who seemingly becomes more involved with each chapter.
To escape from the demands of her late husband¿s father, widow Cornelia ¿Nell¿ Dagenheim, accompanied by her children, heads to London to spend a month with her widowed sister-in-law Ellie and her children and their best friend Livia. The house the three country mice and their offspring plan to stay in belongs to Livia, who recently inherited the home.------------ To their shock, the house is in bad shape as if someone deliberately tore it apart in search of something. Just after her arrival she meets Harry Bonham who offers to buy the townhouse. Harry is a royal cryptographer, who fears that somewhere in the house is a code breaking device that the French want. As he courts the widow to gain access to where she is staying, someone abducts her oldest son, heir to an earldom. Whereas she assumes ransom money and he considers the French involvement, either way they work together to rescue her child even as they fall in love while doing so.-------------- The lead couple supplemented by a horde of family and friends turn A WICKED GENTLEMAN into a superb Regency romantic investigative tale. The two prime subplots, the mystery and the romance blend together into a cohesive save the child thriller. Fans of the author already know she is no featherweight but instead a sub-genre superheavyweight as this team up of a frantic amateur sleuth mom and the spy she loves proves.------------ Harriet Klausner