Scandal begins with just one kiss. . .
Aurora Paxton was once the belle of the ball, the most sought-after debutante of the seasonuntil a scandalous mistake ruined her.Shunned by her family, Rory was banished to the country to live in disgrace. Now she’s been summoned back to London by her stepmother, who is being blackmailed by the least likely person Rory can imagine: Lucas Vale, Marquess of Dashell.
Lucas is someone Rory’s known for yearsa man as devastatingly handsome as he is coldly disapproving of her. What in the world could he want from her or her family? Rory intends to find out as soon as she comes face to face with her old foe. What she never expects, however, is that the icy aristocrat has a soft spot for herand a secret plan to redeem her status. Could it be that Lucas has been in love with Rory all along. . .and has finally found a way to win her heart?
The Scandalous Flirt by Olivia Drake is a sweeping Regency romance you won't be able to put down!
The Cinderella Sisterhood series is:
“Beautiful.”RT Book Reviews
“Breathtaking.”Night Owl Reviews
“Magical.”Once Upon a Romance
About the Author
Olivia Drake is the author of Seducing the Heiress, Never Trust a Rogue, and Scandal of the Year. She has been a member of Romance Writers of America since 1981, and her novels have won the Golden Heart Award, Best Historical Romantic Suspense and Best Regency Historical from Romantic Times, and the prestigious RITA award. She lives in Houston, Texas.
Read an Excerpt
The merest breath of scandal can ruin a lady.
— MISS CELLANY
If Lady Milford hadn't received a last-minute invitation to dine with a member of the royal family, she might never have gone to the bank so late in the day. And she would never have found the next young lady who deserved to wear the enchanted slippers.
As she entered the bank, Clarissa shivered from a blast of chilly April wind. Heavy clouds darkened the skies and hastened the onset of dusk. It would be a good night to remain at home in front of a fire. But she was not yet so ancient as to huddle in a rocking chair with a rug over her knees. Besides, one did not ignore a summons to St. James's Palace. Nor did one wear ordinary jewels like those she kept in a strongbox at home. This grand occasion called for her most prized tiara.
Gas lamps had been lit inside the bank. The light cast a warm glow over the polished oak counters along the walls, and the caged stations where tellers served the last few customers. It was nearly closing time.
A middle-aged bank manager in a black suit swooped toward Clarissa. A set of keys jangled at his stout waist. He bowed, revealing sparse brown hair combed over a balding pate. "My dear Lady Milford. How may I assist you?" "Good afternoon, Mr. Talbot. I should like to access my deposit box."
He ushered her toward a door where she paused to sign the register before entering the vault with its walls of iron drawers. Selecting a key from his ring, Talbot unlocked a numbered strongbox, carried it to a small private chamber, and set it on a table. Then he left Clarissa alone with her valuables.
The box contained various legal documents along with a selection of her costliest jewels. Picking up a black velvet pouch, she opened the drawstring to gaze down at a magnificent tiara. Diamonds in a honeycomb pattern winked in the golden light of the lamp. The centerpiece was a large teardrop diamond in a rare violet hue. It was a perfect match for her eyes ... or so her dear prince had proclaimed upon giving her the tiara all those years ago.
A wistful smile played upon her lips. How she missed him. He had been her ardent lover for too brief a time ... She tucked the tiara into her reticule. Her mind occupied with nostalgic memories, she stepped back into the main vault to inform the manager that she was done. All of a sudden, the door to an adjoining private chamber burst open. Someone rushed out at her.
Clarissa had only half a second to brace herself before the stranger collided with her. She managed to maintain her balance, but her assailant was not so fortunate.
The woman stumbled backward into the door frame. A little box slipped from her kid-gloved fingers and fell with a crash. The golden casket sprang open and a strand of diamonds spilled onto the black marble floor.
"Oh, gracious!" she squeaked.
She bent down to snatch up the casket, stuffing the necklace back into its velvet-lined container. She was a rather buxom woman draped in the latest stare of fashion: a hip-length mantle in claret cashmere over an apple-green gown with several rows of ruffles circling the hem. The gauzy veil of her bonnet partially obscured her features, but as the woman stood up, Clarissa could see sausage-curled fair hair, wide blue eyes, and mature features.
There was something familiar about that face ... The woman dipped a quick curtsy. "My lady! I — I do beg your pardon." With that, she hurried out of the vault and into the lobby of the bank.
My lady. Clarissa could only presume the woman had recognized her. Who was she?
Clarissa followed at a more measured pace, her gaze fixed on the stranger ahead of her. The swift clicking of the woman's heels echoed in the high-ceilinged chamber. She appeared agitated, almost nervous. A guard opened the door and she vanished from the bank.
Mrs. Kitty Paxton. Yes, that was her name.
Although Clarissa knew everyone in society, she had only a nodding acquaintance with Mrs. Paxton. They moved in different circles, not merely because of Clarissa's elevated stature as the widow of an earl, but because she preferred to converse about weighty topics like politics and literature. Mrs. Paxton was a shallow gossipmonger who could speak only of fashion and the latest tittle-tattle. Her daughter recently had become engaged to the Duke of Whittingham. Clarissa had seen the betrothal announcement a few days ago in the newspaper.
Heading across the bank lobby, she frowned. There had been an older daughter, too, hadn't there? A stepdaughter who had made her debut some seven or eight years ago ... Miss Aurora Paxton.
Clarissa recalled a lively debutante with glossy black hair and sparkling brown eyes, one of those rare girls blessed with both beauty and wit. In spite of her modest dowry, she'd possessed a vivacity and charm that had attracted a bevy of gentlemen admirers. She had exhibited a generosity of spirit, too. Clarissa recalled an incident at a ball when another girl had tripped and fallen on the dance floor, and Miss Paxton had been the first to rush to her aid, offering friendly chatter to allay the girl's obvious embarrassment.
Miss Paxton should have received numerous marriage proposals. Yet something had happened in the middle of the season. She had become entangled in a scandal with a foreign diplomat and had been banished for her indiscretion. Clarissa had never again glimpsed the girl in London society.
Where had Miss Paxton gone? What was her situation now? Had she been consigned to the dreary life of a disgraced spinster?
A spark of interest energized Clarissa. Given her own experience with a stepmother, she had a natural empathy for the girl. She knew what it was like to be unloved, unwanted, abandoned. Long ago, upon the death of her well-to-do father, Clarissa had been exiled by her stepmother to the kitchen to work as a servant. One night, a gypsy beggar had come to the back door. Clarissa had taken pity on the poor woman and fed her a hot meal, and in return had been given a pair of enchanted slippers that would lead the wearer to her true love. The shoes had certainly worked well for Clarissa and her prince. Ever since, she had made it her mission to help deserving girls in difficult situations.
Miss Aurora Paxton was the perfect prospect. Now would be a good time to have a word with Mrs. Paxton about the fate of her missing stepdaughter.
Clarissa hastened out of the bank. The dark clouds spat out a few icy raindrops as she glanced up and down the road. At this late hour, traffic had slowed to a trickle. Only a few hackney cabs rumbled over the cobblestones. Workmen headed home after a long day's labor, and the local shops were closing for the night. A lamp man trudged along the pavement, lighting the occasional gas lamp, the golden orbs shining through the fine mist.
Only a minute or two had elapsed. Yet Kitty Paxton was nowhere in sight.
Clarissa proceeded to the carriage parked at the curbstone. The coachman sat on the high seat, hunched in his greatcoat. Another servant stood by the carriage door, his shoulders squared, his husky form ramrod stiff. A thatch of salty cropped hair topped his weathered face.
Clarissa stopped in front of him. "Hargrove, did you see a veiled woman depart the bank just now?"
"Indeed, my lady."
"Where did she go so quickly? I don't see any other carriages, only hackneys."
"She was on foot."
"Walking? In this neighborhood? Why, Mrs. Paxton had a valuable necklace in her possession!"
"She went around that corner." He inclined his head toward the left. "Shall I follow her?"
"I'll accompany you."
They started down the street. Clarissa was glad for Hargrove's presence. He was more than a butler; he was her most trusted servant. She always brought him along whenever she visited the bank. With his military background, he served as her bodyguard and even her spy from time to time. He could be depended upon to use the utmost discretion.
Disquiet coiled in the pit of her stomach. Mrs. Paxton ought to know better than to proceed on foot in a business district at this hour. Ruffians abounded in the city. Something wasn't right, and Clarissa felt an obligation to assure herself of the woman's safety.
They turned the corner. Shadows cloaked the deserted side street. At the far end, a carriage and coachman waited. Perhaps the vehicle belonged to Mrs. Paxton since she was nowhere in sight.
"We must have missed her," Clarissa said, disappointed. She would have welcomed the chance to inquire about the woman's disgraced stepdaughter.
"There," Hargrove muttered. "By those bushes."
Stopping beside him, she peered down the street. A buxom figure lurked in the gloom underneath a tree. Clarissa would never have noticed without Hargrove's sharp eyes.
As they watched, Mrs. Paxton bent down to slip an object underneath the shrubbery. The dull glint of gold revealed it to be a small box. Then she scurried away down the street and stepped into the waiting carriage, which departed to a clattering of wheels.
"What on earth?" Clarissa said. "That must be her diamond necklace. I recognize the box."
How very peculiar. Why would Mrs. Paxton leave a costly piece of jewelry under a bush? And behave in such a clandestine manner? Was that the reason she had seemed so agitated inside the bank?
No sooner had those thoughts flitted through Clarissa's mind than the cloaked figure of a man emerged from a nearby building. At once, Hargrove drew her into the shadows of a doorway. The fellow snatched up the gold box and slipped it into his pocket, then hurried away.
"He's stealing it!" she exclaimed as he vanished from sight.
"No," Hargrove said. "It was left for him. A payment, possibly."
"Do you mean blackmail?"
"Perhaps. Shall I go after him, my lady?"
Clarissa thought for a moment. Into what manner of intrigue had they stumbled? "No. We shan't interfere. Better I should call on Mrs. Paxton tomorrow and find out what I can."
And hopefully she could use the incident as leverage to bring Miss Aurora Paxton back to London.
Gossips gleefully whisper their tittle-tattle with little care for the lives they ruin.
— MISS CELLANY
"Aurora Anne Paxton, wait! You mustn't toss that out!"
The raspy voice came from behind Rory. She had just lugged an old spinning wheel down from the attic. Setting the heavy burden at the head of the staircase, she turned to see Aunt Bernice hurrying out of her bedchamber.
Bernice must be truly distressed. She only called Rory by her full name when she meant business.
They had spent the morning engaged in a spring cleaning of the garret. Their purpose was to find items to donate to the upcoming jumble sale at the village church. Despite the work of several hours, however, the pile of castoffs in the foyer below remained pitifully small.
Bernice had trouble discarding anything. Threadbare petticoats were cut up for handkerchiefs and dust rags. Candle stubs were melted to create new tapers. Broken chairs and shelves were chopped up for firewood. Bernice's thrifty nature was as much a part of her as the robust figure clad in cheap black bombazine. A tall woman, she wore her thinning salt-and-pepper hair scraped back into a knob beneath a white widow's cap. Despite her fifty-eight years, she was as strong as an ox and just as stubborn.
Rory recognized the determined look on Bernice's craggy face. She loved her aunt, but as always, she swore herself to patience.
"There's no point in keeping it, Auntie." She pointed to the base of the spinning wheel, where the foot pedal had come loose from the bar that ran the length of the machine. "The treadle is broken. See?"
"Surely it can be mended!"
"Only think of the expense. It would be a pity to pay for repairs. I can't begin to guess what that would cost."
"Cost? I shan't lay out so much as a ha'penny. I shall ask Murdock to take a look at it. I'm sure he can have it shipshape in no time."
Murdock was their handyman, gardener, and sometime butler. Alas, Bernice had a more optimistic view of his skills than did Rory. The doddering old fellow had a habit of nipping at a jug of rum. Most afternoons, he could be found snoozing in the pantry or the garden shed. If they didn't dispose of the spinning wheel right now, it would end up in a stash of other damaged items that awaited repair in the cellar.
Rory had no wish to move broken items from one spot to another. It was a constant battle to prevent her aunt from accumulating more junk. That task often took a bit of diplomacy.
"The church is in dire need of contributions for the sale. You would like for us to do our part for the roof repair fund, wouldn't you?" Rory said, playing to Bernice's frugal nature. "Unless, of course, you'd prefer to make a monetary donation."
The mention of hard cash did the trick.
Bernice blew out a sigh. "I daresay we can spare this one item. It grieves me, though, to think we might have been spinning our own yarn all these years." She glanced hopefully toward the steep steps to the attic. "Perhaps there's a loom up there."
"No, there isn't." Thank goodness, too. Though Rory had been forced to practice economies since leaving London, she drew the line at weaving her own cloth. To distract her aunt from that direction of thought, she added, "Will you help me take this downstairs, please? It's rather heavy."
She grabbed one end of the spinning wheel, while her aunt took the other. Together they carried the awkward burden down the staircase, being careful not to bump the paneled wall or the ancient oak railing.
It would be nice to have new gowns, Rory reflected, though not made of rough homespun. She recently had embarked on a scheme to earn some pocket money, but it would be necessary to make do with her tattered wardrobe for a little while longer. Nevertheless, she missed the joy of shopping for silks and muslins, feathered bonnets and satin slippers.
She quashed a pang of regret. That life was over now. There was no need to follow fashion when one had been banished to the desolate coast of Norfolk to live in a stone cottage overlooking the sea. Her gowns had been mended and hemmed and patched, remnants of her debut season, when she had been caught in an indecent embrace with a dashing Italian diplomat. She still cringed to recall her naïveté in believing his ardent professions of love ...
A loud rapping on the front door snapped Rory out of her reverie. The sound resonated through the foyer, rattling the old paintings on the walls.
Bernice fumbled her end of the spinning wheel. "Bilge and scurvy, who's that?"
Rory made haste to help her aunt. As she reached out to grab the spindle, a sharp pinch assailed her forefinger. The sting made her wince, but she grasped tightly to the spinning wheel, helping her aunt navigate down the last few steps so they could set the machine beside the small pile of their contributions to the rummage sale.
Bernice frowned at the wood panel of the door. "Fathom that, a visitor, all the way out here! Who could it be —" Her brown eyes focused on her niece. "Why, have you hurt yourself?"
Rory was examining her forefinger. A drop of blood beaded on the tip, and she used a corner of her apron to blot the throbbing spot. "I pricked myself on the spindle, that's all."
"Just like Sleeping Beauty, eh?" Despite her crusty exterior, Bernice had a soft spot for fairy-tale romance. "Well, perhaps that explains it, then."
"Your Prince Charming has arrived to give you true love's kiss."
"If you're referring to Mr. Nesbitt, I should certainly hope not!"
"Hmm. I can't think of anyone else who would drive three miles from the village to call on us."
The expectant stare she cast at her niece was sufficient to lure Rory's attention from her injured digit. "It can't be him. I hinted rather broadly last Sunday after church that I'm not interested in his courtship. He's far too young for me."
"Only by four years. Mr. Nesbitt might be a mere two-and-twenty, but he's not hard on the eyes and he owns three hundred acres of prime farmland. One of the other girls will snatch him up if you don't."
Mr. Nesbitt was indeed agreeable, handsome, and the most eligible bachelor in this little corner of England. But Rory had had enough of fine gentlemen to last a lifetime. "He still has peach fuzz on his face, for pity's sake. Besides, I'm perfectly happy living here with you, Auntie."
Bernice clucked her tongue. "I can't deny you've been my boon companion these past eight years. But every woman needs a loving husband to be her port in a storm. You'd realize that if only you were to meet a man as wonderful as my dear Ollie."
Excerpted from "The Scandalous Flirt"
Copyright © 2017 Barbara Dawson Smith.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.