Wallflower Eleanor Townsend is not like most women. She has no interest in marriage, the ton, or fashion. Instead, her heart lies with science. And when the opportunity to present a paper arises, she takes it, even though it means dressing as a man. But her disguise doesn't quite work. Someone notices
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Eleanor Townsend stared down at the letter in her hands. The words swam together as exhilaration slowly filled her, like tea poured into a cup. She sat completely still, spine straight, foolscap crunched between her thumb and finger, for several seconds. But exhilaration, as always, was temporary, and soon, realities and practicalities came trickling in.
Along with her brother Robert.
She was in the drawing room of their rented town house in Edinburgh's New Town. After her previous, more austere accommodations, she was still getting used to sash windows that nearly stretched to the ceiling, intricate plaster moldings, and delicate furniture.
She missed Llynmore Castle. She missed stone walls and violent tapestries and winding stairwells straight out of a gothic novel. Most of all, she missed her eldest brother and her sister-in-law, but they were newly married and Theo was finally starting to recover from the war, finally easing out from under the suffocating weight that had been on him too long. They deserved their privacy. They deserved a little peace and quiet, too, after all that business with Annabel's sister being forced to flee the country.
Anyway, their town house might not have the unusual charm of a centuries-old castle, but it wasn't as draughty, either, and Eleanor did enjoy the city, even if she couldn't roam around quite as freely in her search for beetles.
Robert stared at her for a long second. "What is it?"
She frowned, smoothing the letter down on her lap. "Why do you assume something is wrong?"
"It's your face. It's more expressive than you think."
That was oddly disheartening. Eleanor was, by nature, a reserved person. She didn't like to think that other people could simply read the things she wasn't saying. Did that mean they could read her unease when she racked her brain for an appropriate social nicety and came up short?
"Who sent the letter?"
"Sir William," she replied.
"A suitor? That's not proper, is it?"
Eleanor nearly laughed. "Since when do you care about what's proper?"
"Since Theo left me in charge. I'm not about to incur his wrath by letting you ruin yourself for Sir William."
"Sir William is nearly sixty years of age."
Robert's expression turned aghast.
"He is not my suitor," she explained quickly. "He's a member of the Natural History Society."
Now her brother simply looked confused.
Eleanor decided there was no harm in telling him. Theo, she might have thought twice about, but Robert wasn't the type of person to try to take charge of her life simply because it was proper, no matter what he said.
"They published a paper I wrote."
Robert's eyebrows lifted.
"And now they want me to give a presentation about it at one of their meetings."
"Should I congratulate you? You don't seem enthused."
"I am," she said. "Truly. I would love to present for the Natural History Society. It's just that ..."
Robert nodded, encouragement for her to continue.
Still, she hesitated. It was one thing to do something rebellious in secret, it was quite another to admit to the rebellious act out loud.
"She published the paper under a male name," her sister, Georgina, said.
They both startled. Eleanor scowled at her younger sister, who'd slipped into the drawing room silently. "I told you that in confidence," she said.
Georgina lifted her shoulder. "It's just Robert."
"Thank you," Robert said drily. "And why would you publish under a male name?" he asked Eleanor.
"Because it was the only way to be published," she explained. "They've never published a female author before. They don't allow female members at all. And there are certain aspects of the paper ..." She trailed off.
"That deal with ..." She trailed off again. She didn't think Robert would be too bothered, but still, she was nervous. The subject of her last paper was not considered a suitable thing for a gentlewoman to take interest in.
"The mating habits of beetles," Georgina finished.
Robert looked bemused, and then, surprisingly, contemplative. "Yes, I can see how that would be a problem. Even if they allowed female members, they wouldn't like to expose a woman to things they deemed indelicate, much less have her expose herself to them."
Eleanor had to refrain from snorting at this bit of ridiculousness.
"What name did you use?"
"I kept Townsend. It's not very uncommon. And Cecil for the given name."
"Cecil?" he asked, like he'd tasted something bitter.
"What's wrong with it?"
"Cecils are the worst sort of people. You can simply tell. I've not once met a Cecil I've liked."
She was a little offended by this declaration. She had always thought Cecil was a nice name. Masculine but elegant. It rolled nicely off the tongue. She glanced to her sister.
"I probably wouldn't have chosen it," Georgina admitted.
"Regardless," Eleanor said, feeling like they were getting off topic, "I wrote the paper as Cecil Townsend. I cannot show up as Eleanor Townsend."
"Are you certain?"
"Yes." She sighed. "It would cause an uproar. There is no doubt in my mind that they wouldn't let me present. I'd probably be ruined."
The three siblings took a moment to contemplate the looming specter of ruination before Georgina asked, "But what if you did speak as Cecil?"
Robert and Eleanor stared at her blankly. "Pardon?"
"What if you pretended to be a man so you could give the lecture?"
Robert barked out a laugh. "That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard."
"You want to speak at their meeting, don't you?" Georgina pressed.
Want wasn't the right term for it. The idea of speaking in front of a group terrified her. But at the same time, a part of Eleanor yearned for it. Part of her awkwardness in Society was due to the fact that most of Society wasn't interested in the things that interested her. She had trouble conversing about fashion plates or her accomplishments on the pianoforte or who had partnered with whom at a ball because she couldn't care less.
She wished to meet like-minded people. She longed to discuss the newest discoveries in the sciences. And perhaps it wasn't modest, or proper, or womanly, but she wanted to own her research, mating beetles and all.
She'd spent too much time on it, collected and crafted her insect cabinets too meticulously, to let them sit in the dark and gather dust. And if she declined a coveted invitation from such an illustrious society, it could hurt her reputation in the science world. They might not publish her again, which would be a difficult blow. The journal of the Natural History Society was one of the best in Great Britain.
No, want wasn't the right term for it. Need was more to the point.
"I would like nothing more, but I cannot."
"Why not?" Georgina said.
Her sister made everything sound so simple. When Georgina wanted to do something, she did it, damn the censure and the consequences. Sometimes Eleanor wondered if the only reason she hadn't completely disgraced the Townsend name by now was her love for her family. It certainly wasn't out of a sense of propriety.
"Because if she is discovered," Robert pointed out, enunciating each word, "she'll be even more ruined than if she simply walked in and confessed the truth."
"I thought ruination was ruination," Georgina said. "I didn't realize there were different levels."
"Trust me, there are," Robert said.
"And I think the most important word here is if. She'll not be ruined if she's not discovered."
"Risking one's reputation on if is a reckless endeavor."
Georgina waved him off with a negligent hand. "Not when one isn't reckless about it. We can help her look like Cecil and speak like Cecil. By the time we're done, no one will know she isn't Cecil."
"She looks womanly enough to me."
Eleanor frowned. "Womanly enough" didn't sound like much of a compliment.
"She'll need a disguise. Spectacles, perhaps, and her hair —"
Her hand reached up, of its own volition, to touch the dark-brown curls that framed her face.
"We could cut it," Georgina said.
Her hand tightened over her hair. She wasn't vain, but she wasn't certain she wanted Georgina chopping away at it.
Robert pressed his lips together in thought. "A wig."
"I've noticed some of the gentlemen here still cling to the fashion. It wouldn't look too out of place."
Georgina grinned. "Perfect."
Robert suddenly shook his head. "No. What am I saying? It's ridiculous. Theo would strangle me with his bare hands if he found out."
"Well, don't tell him!" Georgina exclaimed.
Eleanor blinked. It felt as though the conversation had been yanked from her hands entirely.
Robert finally turned to look at her, and relief eased the tightness of his features. "But the woman in question hasn't agreed to it. What do you wish to do, Eleanor?"
He thought there was no chance she'd take part in such a mad scheme. He thought she was content to sit here and embroider and think about her future husband. Or, at least, if she wasn't content, she was practical enough to accept her fate.
She'd thought she was, too, until she'd received Sir William's letter.
Until something shifting and impetuous inside of her had rejoiced.
Until she'd started to yearn.
She met Georgina's gaze, and her sister, who knew her too well, smiled with the satisfaction of a cat reclining in a ray of sunlight.
"I think ..." Eleanor said, looking down at her hands folded primly in her lap, "that I would very much like to present my research."
James MacGregor didn't flinch as he received a punch to his side. The hit was softened by mufflers, after all. He'd taken enough bare-knuckled ones in the past to barely feel the impact. He knew how to swallow pain, how to conceal weakness, how to continue the fight — his crooked monstrosity of a nose, which had been broken three separate times, was testament to his endurance.
It had taken him several months of practice and several ounces of bloodshed, but eventually he'd learned how to avoid the worst hits. He'd developed a quickness that hadn't come naturally. He'd learned to read his opponents, to react before they'd even moved.
And all for one simple reason that had nothing to do with fear of pain.
Losers didn't get paid.
He could have avoided Stephen Locke's clumsy attempt at a hit, but that would have defeated the purpose of teaching him, and risked the income he was gaining by instructing Stephen and his group of friends.
"Your fists aren't high enough."
James's accent was crisp and clean — he'd long ago lost the brogue of his mother's Highland heritage, with the help of careful observation and practice.
He showed Stephen how to jab properly, tilting his wrist down slightly, making sure his thumb was in a safe position so he didn't break it on impact.
"Quick, short jabs," he said. "Nothing wide-armed or extravagant. This isn't a public house brawl. And don't forget to keep your other fist up to protect your face."
This time, when Stephen hit him, it hurt. Just a little.
His drawing room, a bare space completely devoted to practice except for a few chairs in the corner, smelled ripe with sweat. It wasn't a scent James liked or disliked, it was simply one that had grown as familiar as his own hands. Like the smell of fish to a dockside laborer, or hay and horse manure to a stable boy.
There were other men sparring in the room. The sounds — knuckles against flesh, grunts, pain, harsh breaths — had also grown familiar. A pugilism melody.
James MacGregor lived a life of contained violence.
It was what he excelled at the most — inflicting damage on others while protecting himself from harm. Sometimes he wondered what that said about him.
But philosophy was for idle men, and he didn't have the wealth or the position for idleness.
Not yet. Not quite.
When their practice ended, James grabbed a linen towel and wiped the sweat off his face before throwing a fresh towel to Stephen.
"I hear the Earl of Lark is in residence," Stephen said idly.
James's stomach jumped, more than it ever did when a fist was flying toward his face, but he returned Stephen's stare with an implacable gaze.
"With his daughter," he continued.
It was no use being implacable with Stephen. He'd told him too much, under the influence of a tankard, or two, or three, of ale, and now the man seemed to think James's life was somehow his business, as though he was a pet project for a bored mind.
"Fascinating," James drawled.
"Did you know the Earl of Lark is a member of the Natural History Society?"
"Should I care?"
"Campbell cares," Stephen said, nodding toward one of the other men who was talking to a friend. "He's a member, too. There's a talk next week. Something about beetles." Stephen grimaced.
James tilted his head, unable to keep the interest out of his expression.
Now Stephen smirked. "I didn't know you were so fascinated by insects."
"Could Campbell get me in?"
"Most likely. It's an elite society, but members sometimes bring guests to the lectures. He might even be able to get you an introduction."
"The earl is a veritable beetle enthusiast, I hear. Knowledge in the subject would probably go far in impressing him."
James didn't know a damn thing about beetles. He could probably go his whole life and not care if he ever heard a lecture about them. He didn't care much for science, or natural history. No, the things he coveted the most were the things he'd been denied — beauty, wealth, position, and the handsome, fine-boned daughters of lords. "Indeed?" he said, working a little harder than normal to keep his brogue from his accent.
Stephen was still smirking. If he and his pugilism-enthusiast friends weren't his customers, and loyal ones at that, James might be tempted to knock him on his arse.
After the men had left, James went to the lending library and found every resource he could about beetles. If he could learn enough about the damned things to suitably impress the Earl of Lark, he would be one step closer to the man's daughter. And all those things he'd been denied would finally be within reach.
"Stop scratching!" Georgina said.
Eleanor lowered her hand. "This wig is making my forehead itch," she said calmly.
"Yes, but if Cecil wears wigs, he'll be used to it. Now put on the spectacles."
She handed the round-framed spectacles over, and Eleanor perched them on her nose. The lenses magnified everything slightly, giving the world a strange slant. She squinted at the round table in front of her, then at the oak bookcases across from her, then at Georgina, who was dressed in fine wool and looking off-kilter.
"You can't peer at everything like that. You look about sixty. You're supposed to be a young man."
Eleanor adjusted the spectacles, but that only made it worse. They were squeezing her skull like some sort of medieval torture device. "Young men don't wear wigs."
"A somewhat eccentric young man," Georgina corrected.
There was a tap on the door, and Robert poked his head in. He blinked when he saw his sister in a man's wig and spectacles. "Cecil," he said, peering at her. "Is that you? I'm delighted."
Georgina laughed, and Eleanor rolled her eyes.
"Do you have the clothes?" she asked.
He pushed open the door to reveal the bundle of garments he carried. "I gave the servants the rest of the day off, so you are at your leisure to walk about in men's clothing for as long as you want. My tailor was a bit confused when I gave him a request for these measurements, but he didn't ask questions."
Robert began to lay out the clothes on the settee — a snowy linen shirt, a blue waistcoat and black coat, a cravat, dark breeches with white stockings, and black dress shoes. He bowed as though he was a valet presenting clothes to his master, and then left to give them privacy.
"I think Robert is starting to enjoy this too much," Eleanor muttered.
She held up the breeches and eyed them with trepidation.
Georgina shrugged. "It can't be that difficult, if men do it every day."
Her sister was correct — it wasn't all that difficult. Luckily, Eleanor had small breasts, and they weren't noticeable at all once she bound them and slipped into the waistcoat. She straightened, fully dressed in men's garments, which felt quite strange, and then stared at the cravat clutched in her hands.
Georgina matched her quizzical glance.
Everything else had been self-explanatory ... this part was indecipherable. Why did men wear these contraptions? They didn't serve any purpose, at all, except to make one's throat look festive.
"I think we need help."
Georgina's footsteps faded as she left to fetch Robert, and then two sets grew louder a few moments later. Robert pushed into the room first. Stopped. Stared.
Excerpted from "The Rogue's Conquest"
Copyright © 2017 Lily Maxton.
Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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