A horse race in trousers on Rotten Row. Visiting a gaming hall in a dress that would make her mother faint. Sneaking an invitation to a masquerade ball attended by only the wickedest, most debauched members of society…
None of these things are scaring off bookish but strong-willed Amelia Bishop’s stuffy, egotistical fiancé.
The only thing left is to entice childhood friend Nicholas Wakefield into a truly engagement-ending scandal. The Wakefields are the height of propriety, and Nicholas’s parents have made it clear a wife from the neighboring Bishop family would be unacceptable…
But Nicholas would give up his family and his fortune if Amelia would ever see him as more than just a childhood friend. He’ll go along with her scheme, even if it means ruining them both, because he’s got a plan that will change her mind about him being merely the boy next door.
Each book the Tale of Two Sisters series is STANDALONE:
* The Importance of Being Scandalous
* A Scandal By Any Other Name
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The long driveway hadn't changed at all. As the carriage rolled toward the towering exterior of Nicholas's parents' country home, the last two years dissolved under its austere presence. The dutiful second son was returning home from time spent abroad, and everything would be exactly as before. Why did the thought irritate him?
The entire household was arrayed to greet him. Nicholas's parents hadn't changed, either, but he hadn't expected them to. Their rigid postures greeted him with timeless familiarity. Lord and Lady Wakefield had dedicated their entire lives to presenting the stolid, dignified air of respectable English nobility. Returning home to find them changed ... now, that would have been truly unsettling.
Nicholas waited for the footman to open the door. Haste was for the unmannered and the imprudent.
He stepped down from the carriage, stopping in front of his parents to deliver a formal bow to each in turn. "Lord Wakefield, Lady Wakefield."
"It is lovely to see you again, Nicholas." It was the equivalent of an emotional outburst, coming from his mother.
He was careful not to let his smile cross into unseemly joy. "And you as well, Mother."
Formalities observed, there wasn't much else to say. Nicholas followed his parents up the steps, through the grand double doors, and into the foyer. Smithson took his hat and gloves with an echoing sameness. No, nothing had changed at all.
Nothing except Nicholas.
At the foot of the grand staircase, his mother stopped. "Tea will be served in the south drawing room, after you are settled."
Nicholas nodded. "Of course. I won't be long."
He didn't take the stairs two at a time. That would have raised eyebrows.
A wash basin was waiting in his room. He used it as an excuse to strip off his morning coat and waistcoat. The starchy cravat landed on top of them on the four-poster bed as he rolled his shirt sleeves up. It was only after he pushed the window up in the casement, letting in the cool Berkshire breeze, and sprawled out in the armchair beside it, that he truly could breathe.
Home. It was supposed to fill one with a sense of comfort and nostalgia, wasn't it? Instead, the cold formality of this house filled Nicholas with a longing to be somewhere else. If anyone asked — not that anyone would — Nicholas could claim he was missing the winding streets of Paris or breathtaking frescos of Rome.
In reality, his longing had only ever led him to one place: the estate hidden behind the tree line that separated Wakefield lands from their nearest neighbor.
France and Italy had been fine distractions, but still, always, his thoughts returned to the Bishop family home, and to one Bishop in particular. Amelia might have remained in England, but her specter had walked every step of the Avenue des Champs-Élysées at his side. Even a construct of his imagination was better than being without her — even if it was equally incapable of returning his affections.
"Come in, Bertram."
The arrival of his valet, and the accompanying footmen with their luggage, marked the end of his musings. Once Bertram had the first trunk opened, Nick pulled two packages off the top of the neatly folded clothes. The first was a stack of letters.
During school, Nick had developed a habit of writing to Amelia every day. He'd tried to when he was away this time, but the romance of Paris had seeped into his words and he hadn't had the courage to send them to her. He tucked them away in a drawer of the desk that sat in the corner of his room. Better to wait until he could be sure they would be well received. And he would be sure. Being away from Amelia for so long ...
He went back to the window, staring at the tree line. In Paris, he'd discovered what was important to him. More than his parents' approval, more than the fear that Amelia wouldn't feel the same for him, he needed to declare himself and find out once and for all if she felt the same.
The second package might help his cause. Nicholas picked up the slim book with its unassuming blue cover. It was a first edition collection of sonnets on love that defied distance and time. The little shop he'd found it in would have made Amelia dizzy with excitement if she had been there.
"Shall I lay out a new shirt, sir?"
"Better make it a full change, Bertie."
Looking his best for his visit to the Bishop household would help quell the nervousness that had taken up residence under his skin at the thought of seeing Amelia again.
Although, he'd have to spend some time with his parents first. They were expecting him for tea and he was once again ensconced in Wakefield Manor, monument of familial responsibility. The freedom he'd found during his absence had made him see things differently. For a time, he wasn't just a second son, subject to the whims of his parents and elder sibling. For a time, he'd been able to live the way he wanted (within reason) without anyone frowning their disapproval over the breakfast table. It had been glorious.
Now he'd been summoned back. After the first year passed with no such request, Nicholas had begun to doubt it would ever come. Perhaps they'd forgotten about him. Perhaps they'd been as relieved to have him go as he was to be gone. While the second thought had come with an unexpected sting, it had quickly dissipated under the joyful possibility that his bohemian holiday might be permanent.
The letter had not explained why he was being asked to return. For all Nicholas knew, they could be commissioning him to the army or commending him to the clergy, though he strongly doubted it. No Wakefield — even a second son Wakefield — need do something as vulgar as taking on a profession.
"Ready, Lord Nicholas?"
"Not in the slightest, but I have every faith I will look impeccable for whatever awaits me." Nicholas slid the book into the inside pocket of his jacket and went down.
He took the grand staircase back to the ground floor and made his way to the south drawing room. It overlooked the large manicured lawn that dominated the southern end of the grounds, which ended at the tree line. The Bishop estate was completely hidden from view — a deliberate work of the last nineteen years, tirelessly undertaken by the grounds crew under the direction of Lady Wakefield.
When his mother saw the direction of his glance, her mouth tightened. His father observed very little except the pages of the periodical his face was hidden behind.
"Markets treating you well, Lord Wakefield?" Nicholas sat down in the wingback chair that matched his father's.
They lapsed into silence, broken only by the clinking of teacups and his mother's politely innocuous commentary. Eventually, though, they had no choice but to come to the point.
"Your father's not well."
At first, he thought he misheard. Nicholas's parents had both always been in the peak of health. A Wakefield would never be so inconsiderate as to be burdensome. "Excuse me?"
His father appeared to agree. Lord Wakefield set down his paper and frowned at his wife. "Lavinia."
"No, Arthur. You agreed to bring him home. It's time to tell him."
Lord Wakefield sighed. "It's nothing, really. I'm not infirm. I just —"
"He forgets things," Lady Wakefield said bluntly. "And he has trouble making decisions."
Nicholas froze, still holding his teacup. Lord Wakefield was a force to be reckoned with. Always certain, always in control. "Surely there is some mistake. Perhaps you're just tired."
Lord Wakefield shook his head. "I don't like it any more than you do, but what your mother says is true."
He couldn't wrap his head around it. "For how long?"
"About a year." Lord Wakefield was unable to meet his son's eyes. "It's getting worse."
A year. And they hadn't said a word.
"Does Philip know?" His older brother hadn't said anything when Nick had stopped over in London on his way to the estate.
"We didn't want to worry him." Lady Wakefield's spine was as rigid as ever. "He's extremely busy with his work in the House of Lords. His reputation is becoming quite prestigious."
Ah, prestige. Nicholas set his teacup down. The furthering of the Wakefield legacy could not be compromised for something as silly as informing the Marquess's heir that his father was slowly losing his mind.
His own presence at their ancestral seat suddenly acquired extreme clarity. He had not been called back for any sentimental reason. He was to be a replacement. "You mean for me to be Philip's proxy until you're ready to tell him."
The old wounds cracked open. His very existence was a redundancy. An heir and a spare. He had been conceived as a contingency plan in case something happened to his brother. Or, apparently, in case his brother was just busy. But along with the old pain came the corresponding complication. Nicholas cared.
The respect his brother had earned in the House of Lords was a credit to Philip's intelligence and integrity. It was exactly what Philip had hoped for as a boy and he was accomplishing it. Nicholas didn't want to interfere with that. And Nick cared about the estate. Hundreds of tenants relied on them and the Wakefield family had made good on that trust for generations.
He cared about his parents, who sat across from him and calmly prepared for their world to fall apart. If he turned out half as strong someday, he would count himself a success. "Why didn't you call me back sooner?"
It was Lady Wakefield's turn to avoid meeting his eyes. "We thought it would pass, and ..."
"And it took a long time for me to admit that it wasn't going to."
Nicholas wanted to comfort his father somehow, but they weren't that kind of family.
Silence descended again until his mother broke it with the conversational equivalent of a cannon volley. "Amelia Bishop is engaged."
Just like that, the same way she'd mention how pleasant the weather had been.
Lord Wakefield scowled at his wife, reverting to the relative peace of The Morning Post.
A sharp pain started up in Nicholas's chest. "I hadn't heard." If he had, he wouldn't have spent his entire trip home planning out how to tell her he loved her. Amelia was engaged. Amelia was engaged.
Lady Wakefield made a neutral humming sound. "To Lord Montrose. It was quite surprising."
"Not that surprising," Lord Wakefield said from behind the paper. "Lady Amelia's dowry could finance an empire. Some people are swayed by that sort of thing."
Still, no one respectable should be associating themselves with the tainted Bishop family. That was the rest of what his mother wanted to say but wouldn't, because it was neither proper nor would it end well. Nicholas had placidly adhered to the expectation that he be agreeable at all times, on all subjects, except one — the ostracizing of the Bishop family from polite society.
The sheer proximity of their estates was enough to send Lady Wakefield into a torrent of sniffs and non-committal humming sounds. If Wakefield Manor hadn't been the ancestral seat of the title, Nicholas had no doubt she would have forced his father to sell it long ago and moved somewhere less controversial. As it was, his mother had never forgiven the Bishops for not having the decency to leave the area when they fell from grace.
"I didn't realize the Bishops were acquainted with the Earl of Montrose." They hadn't been when Nicholas had left. What the devil had happened while he'd been gone?
"It was an accident. Quite out of the ordinary," his mother explained. "Something to do with a broken carriage wheel."
"One wonders why Lord Montrose sought assistance from the Bishops instead of coming here." Nicholas's distaste for society's prejudice against the Bishops wasn't shared by many.
Lord Wakefield snorted. "One of the benefits of not having a daughter, especially a pretty daughter, is the remarkable infrequency of accidental visitors at one's door."
"We were quite fortunate to be blessed with sons." Lady Wakefield rushed to move the discussion away from the prettiness of Amelia Bishop. "Did you see Caroline or the boys when you visited Philip?"
"No, but Philip says they're doing well."
Everything was nice. Anything with the audacity to be something other than nice was promptly ignored or hidden from view. Or shipped off to the continent, where Lord and Lady Wakefield could be certain it wouldn't embarrass the family by having unsuitable feelings for the unsuitable neighbor. It was obvious now why they'd waited to summon him back. They would rather risk the estate to threat of senility than risk having Amelia Bishop as a daughter-in-law.
Amelia was engaged.
Suddenly Nicholas needed to escape the confines of the perfectly ordered sitting room. "I believe I'll go for a ride."
Something akin to panic flitted across his mother's face. Lady Wakefield looked to her husband for guidance, but the periodical still shielded Lord Wakefield from view. "I think your father wanted to discuss something with you."
"Hmm?" The Morning Post lowered enough to reveal Lord Wakefield's confusion. "Not that I recall."
"Oh, well then." Her composure slipped again.
If his sense of charity weren't somewhat diminished by their decision to ambush him with the news of Amelia's engagement, Nicholas might have allayed his mother's fears by telling her that the Bishop estate was not his intended destination. However, he was not feeling overly gracious, nor was he in the mood to lie.
The swish of the door dragging across the carpet woke Amelia from her midmorning half sleep. She pretended not to hear it or the tell-tale rhythm of the intruder's steps as they made slow progress across the room. Amelia expected the weight of the body that landed on top of her, but expecting it didn't make it any less jarring.
"Go away," Amelia complained, pulling the covers over her face. She hid herself in a cocoon of periwinkle satin.
"I will not." Julia bounced to add to Amelia's discomfort. "You've been in bed all morning."
"I am unwell. Most people have the manners to leave the ill in peace."
"Most people are not your sister." Julia wrestled the covers away from her. "And you're not sick. You're hiding."
"Are so." Julia stopped squashing her to death and settled onto the mattress next to her.
Amelia turned to face her, clutching a pillow to her chest for comfort. "It's our parents."
Julia smiled. "I tried to tell you."
"Honestly, Jules. Where do they find the energy? Do they never get tired?"
"Being the favorite is exhausting."
Amelia tugged on a piece of Julia's perfect gold hair. "I'm sure you're still their favorite."
"I wouldn't be so certain." Julia tugged back on Amelia's brown strands. "You've landed an earl, and a young, handsome one at that. I think you're just going have to get used to it."
"I can't." She truly couldn't. Until she'd feigned sick this morning, Amelia hadn't had a moment to herself all week. It was a never-ending stream of planning parties, making vital introductions, and playing catch-up on a lifetime of social skills Amelia had never expected she'd need to learn.
Julia took their two locks of hair and started weaving her golden strands into Amelia's brown, linking them together. "Of course you can. Meanwhile, I am desperately excited to discover what it's like to be left alone for a while."
"Can't you pretend to have a headache so Mother will rush to your side?" "Absolutely not. Once you marry, they'll be worse than ever. I'm taking this reprieve while I am able."
Amelia groaned. She rolled over, facing the garden windows instead of her completely unhelpful sister.
"Cheer up. Once you're Lady Montrose, you'll live with Embry and you won't have to see any of us if you don't you wish to."
Lady Montrose. Amelia was going to be a countess. It was too much to fathom. Even her parents had never expected her to marry above a vicar or some lesser merchant.
"Julia," Amelia asked seriously. "Are you certain you're all right?" "Of course. I'm thrilled."
It sounded sincere, but Amelia knew her sister better than that. "We always said —"
"Don't be silly. We both knew you'd marry someday."
"Not before you."
Julia rolled her eyes. "We're not children anymore. I think we can admit that's never going to happen."
"I will not, and you shouldn't, either." Amelia's sister was beautiful, intelligent, and talented. Julia was superior to Amelia in every way, right down to her impeccable style and lyrical voice.
"No suitable man wants a crippled wife, Mia."
Excerpted from "The Importance of Being Scandalous"
Copyright © 2017 Kimberly Bell.
Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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