DUKE OF SCANDAL
Naughty Netherford was too busy having fun.
Felicity shook her head. “If the matter were not so urgent, I should not have minded waiting, but under the circumstances… Well, don’t worry, Mrs. Brown. We shan’t be long,” she assured the older lady. “And besides, we’ve taken every measure to ensure propriety.” As much as can be had when dealing with a rakehell of the first order.
“Hmm, yes, well, I suppose it is early yet,” her chaperone conceded. “With any luck, we may escape his neighbors’ notice. These fashionable folk usually lie abed till noon. Keeping such late hours is not healthy,” she added with a disapproving frown.
“No.” Felicity leaned toward the carriage window, peering out at the aristocratic neighborhood into which their coach now turned. “This place certainly is impressive.”
“You’ve been to Moonlight Square before.”
“Only at night, for balls and such, actually. Never in the daytime.”
“Ah,” said Mrs. Brown.
At night, Moonlight Square had seemed to her to brood beneath the stars in elegant, lordly excess, like some dark, decadent poet. Even now, the glistening spring morning full of sunshine and birdsong could not quite dispel the eerie cast of melancholy reflecting off all the smooth Portland stone facades. Perhaps its sinister history as a hanging ground explained the pall that still hung over the place despite its current terraced perfection, all classical, columned porticoes and lacy wrought iron balconies.
In antique maps of London the area was labeled Hell’s Watch, but a decade ago, the Prince Regent’s own architect, Mr. Beau Nash, had built the magnificent garden square right overtop of the old, macabre memories of public executions and doomed rogues hanging in man-cages.
Nowadays the ton called this place Olympus on account of all the peers who had moved in. With a duke on every blasted corner, it might as well have been the home of the gods. And yet it did seem to attract a certain type of resident…
The wild, dark lords of Moonlight Square definitely made up their own dangerous breed. They fit right in with the haunted atmosphere that still lingered in this place, as though they were drawn to it. Each an island of gloom and brooding isolation unto himself, they drifted through Society like great, ominous thunderheads, crackling with the tension of pent-up lightning and liable to rage into a storm at any moment.
No wonder he had moved here.
At that moment, Felicity’s driver slowed the clip-clopping horses to a halt before the giant corner mansion of the Duke of Netherford.
Right on cue, she felt her foolish heart begin to pound. She leaned toward the window, letting her gaze travel slowly upward over the five-storied splendor of his London mansion. She shook her head to herself.
Lud, sometimes it was hard to believe that the scandalous seducer who dwelled in such pomp was the same wiry rascal of a boy who had gone traipsing through the countryside with her and her elder brother, Peter, growing up. Or rather, the boys had gone traipsing. She, four years younger and a mere girl—as though it were a disease—had been tolerated only so long as she could keep up.
What happened to us all? she wondered. We used to be so close. We used to have such fun.
Wistfulness filled her for the happy childhood that had faded like a dream. She had known such freedom then, and he had once been innocent.
But that was long ago.
Ah, well. It was obvious what had happened: they had all three grown up. Life had taken its toll on each of them in various ways, and now here they were. Her brother and Jason were still as thick as thieves, but Felicity had long since been left out of the equation.
Of course, she had brought it on herself through her own youthful folly, throwing herself at her brother’s best friend that humiliating day eight years ago.
She closed her eyes with a faint wince at the memory.
Jason’s gentle rebuff still hurt a bit to this day, truth be told. Thankfully, however, she was long over her painfully intense infatuation with the heir to the Netherford dukedom, who had grown up on the neighboring estate.
She supposed any girl might have fallen for him back then. He was funny and kind and took an interest in what she had to say; he was reliable and good-hearted, for all his teasing, merry roguery. It had been a concoction her young heart could not withstand. Unable to bear her secret adoration of him any longer, at the ripe old age of fifteen, she had finally confessed her devotion to the older boy.
The then nineteen-year-old Jason had been, in a word, horrified.
Felicity shook her head, cringing. Now twenty-three, she could not imagine what degree of everyday familiarity between them could have possibly made her imagine it was anything other than scandalous to plop herself down on his lap, drape her arms around his neck, and flirt with him the way she had, with a big, naïve, beaming smile.
He had gone quite ashen, and too late, she had realized he was aghast at the position in which she had put him. Instead of declaring his undying love in return, as she had somehow foolishly expected, he had set her aside, stood up stiffly, and walked out the door.
Later that evening, before she had even recovered from her shame, Peter had marched into her chamber and yelled at her for making a fool of herself, risking her reputation, and bothering his friend.
Things between her and Jason had never been the same after that.
She was lucky Peter had decided not to tell Mama, but he only kept it to himself because their mother was still fragile from losing Father the winter before to a fever. Peter, now man of the house, had said it would probably “kill” their mother to hear that her daughter had behaved in such a fashion.
Ever since that day, Felicity had been very careful to comport herself with the utmost prim-and-proper rectitude at all times. No matter how bored she grew with her existence sometimes. No matter how much she might resent it.
Ah, but back then, in her tearful innocence, she had told her brother she had honestly thought her beloved Jason liked bold girls. Based on some rather scandalous conversations she’d overheard between the two rowdy young bucks, it was an understandable mistake. And she had so wanted Jason to love her as she loved him—for himself—who he was, not for his dukedom or his wealth or anything like that. Such things were meaningless to a lovesick girl of fifteen.
But alas, her moment of brash forwardness had ruined everything between them. Jason had all but forgotten she existed, particularly after he had ascended to the title, taking the place of his horrid cold fish of a father.
Felicity could only pray that perhaps by now he had forgotten the whole embarrassing debacle. Likely he had, given the sea of women these days who regularly threw themselves at the hard, polished libertine he’d become.
Still, that was no excuse for him to ignore both of her frantic letters. It wasn’t as though she expected such an important personage as the Duke of Netherford to give her a personal response. She was quite content to deal with His Grace’s secretary.
All she wanted was one simple piece of information: whether or not he was able to get a message to her brother for her.
It was urgent, and since Jason could apparently not be bothered to answer his mail, she had come in person to get the details she needed from someone, anyone, on the duke’s staff.
As her coachman walked back from the driver’s box to hand the ladies down, and her footman ran her card up to the front door, Mrs. Brown tapped Felicity on the shoulder. “My dear?”
About to get out of the vehicle, she glanced back at the matron. “Yes, ma’am?”
“What will you do if we see the duke?” Mrs. Brown asked, worry in her dark eyes.
Words quite failed Felicity at the question.
Hope the earth opens up and swallows me? But she dared not reveal any sign of her misgivings to her chaperone, who was even more prim and proper than she was.
“That isn’t going to happen,” she finally clipped out, forcing a confident smile. He’s probably sleeping it off in a brothel somewhere across Town right now, anyway.
With that, Felicity stepped down, smoothed her ebony skirts, gripped the handle of the black reticule draped over her arm, and walked to the rogue’s front door with her head held high.
Her plump chaperone and skinny maid, Dorcas, who’d been riding on top of the coach, both hurried after her for moral support, and together, the three of them presented a bastion of respectability at the Duke of Scandal’s door.
His butler had already answered and taken her card from the footman.
“Miss Carvel?” the butler greeted her in astonishment. The sweet-faced old man had lit up when he had read her card, obviously recognizing her by her brother’s last name.
Peter did tend to have that effect on people—bold, swashbuckling charmer that he was, and a decorated war hero, too.
“Goodness me! Miss Carvel, do please come in, come in!” The butler beamed, opening the door wider for them. “Ladies,” he added, nodding kindly at her two attendants as they walked between the sculpted topiaries flanking the elegant entrance.
Mounting the few front stairs, the three women filed into the duke’s opulent entrance hall.
The butler was still staring at Felicity, rather marveling, as though she were a wonder of the world.