Book excerpt

Scandalous by Night

Barbara Pierce

St. Martin's Press

Chapter One

February 3, 1811, Worrington Hall

Just as I thought," Georgette Lidsaw, Countess of Worrington, said as she peered at her niece’s reflection through the looking glass. "The necklace suits you. Consider it a gift."

Awed by her aunt’s generosity, Maura Keighly fingered the silver pendant. It was a beautiful old piece. Composed of two hinged pieces of elaborate silver filigree, the necklace’s upper tier had one pearl mounted in the center with two polished silver beads on each side. The bottom portion was in the shape of an upside- down triangle. Three pearls were mounted on each point, the largest at the bottom. Pear-shaped silver beads dangled below the pearls. Shaking her head, Maura reached up to the clasp in an attempt to remove the necklace.

"You spoil me, Georgette, with your generosity. However, I cannot accept your gift." The silver chain slithered through her fingers as she extended her palm to her aunt.

The countess’s brow furrowed, reflecting her puzzlement. At six and thirty, Georgette was fourteen years older than her niece. In Maura’s opinion, the passing years had only refined the perfection nature had bestowed on her aunt. Georgette had married well, twice. Lord Perton had married her before the end of her aunt’s first season in London. The marriage was a happy, albeit brief one. Illness had claimed the lady’s beloved lord before her twenty-first birthday.

Maura’s mother, Georgette’s older sister, had once confessed that her younger sibling had grown reckless in her grief. In a futile attempt to keep pace with the wilder members of the ton, Georgette’s lavish spending depleted the funds her late husband had set aside for her. By the age of six and twenty, her gambling debts had ruined her. For a lady in her dire financial predicament, her aunt had two choices: she could retire to the country and rely on the charity of her sister, or she could seek out a wealthy husband. The young dowager turned her attentions to the Earl of Worrington. Thirty years her senior, Lord Worrington was immediately smitten. The earl was no stranger to the marriage bed. There had been three other Lady Worringtons before the earl made Georgette his fourth. After twelve years together, both seemed satisfied with the arrangement.

Georgette waved away Maura’s extended hand. "Nonsense. The necklace looks lovely on you. Unless you do not like it. Perhaps one of the others…" She peered into her case where several other necklaces were coiled like serpents of silver and gold.

"No, Aunt." Maura lightly touched the other woman on the arm. "Georgette, I adore the pendant. Truly." She gazed wistfully at the gleaming silver in her palm. "However, I cannot accept something that is clearly an antique. You can not cast off jewelry that was clearly meant to be worn by the Countess of Worrington."

Georgette tipped her head back and laughed. "Oh, you are a treasure, Maura. This isn’t one of the revered Worrington family pieces. The necklace is an old trinket that belonged to a forgotten lady connected to the family. If you do not want it, I suppose we could take it to London with us. We’ll visit a silversmith who could melt it down into something more to your liking."

Maura closed her fingers over the pendant. The notion of destroying such a beautiful old piece was abhorrent to her. "That will not be necessary, Aunt. If Lord Worrington does not mind my claiming the necklace, then I will gratefully accept your gift."

She reached up to secure the necklace around her neck. There was little doubt that the earl would approve of his lady’s generous actions. During their twelve- year marriage, Lord Worrington had proven himself a most indulgent husband.

"Worrington rarely denies my requests," Georgette said, confirming Maura’s suspicions. Her aunt laid her cheek affectionately against Maura’s. Side by side, the resemblance between aunt and niece was startling, though Maura considered the attributes more flattering on her aunt. They shared the same nose, and almond-shaped eyes. With her parents’ thirst for travel, Maura had adopted many of her aunt’s mannerisms, such as how Georgette tipped her chin smugly upward when she was confident she was correct, and the coy way she brought the back of her hand up to her lips to stifle her laughter. It always seemed to charm Lord Worrington whenever he observed Maura emulating his lady’s actions.

There were differences between them as well. For instance, her aunt shared the same eye color as her mother, a warm medium blue. Maura had inherited her paternal grandmother’s eye color, which was a moody sea-gray.

Maura was taller by several inches. Her frame was pleasantly formed, but nature had been slightly generous, rounding her hips and bosom. Georgette was slender, and often lamented that her bodice would benefit from some plumpness in her bosom.

Both possessed tresses with a natural tendency to curl. However, Maura’s hair was a rich brown with a hint of a ripe strawberry hue, while Georgette’s thinner shoulder-length tresses were light brown. When Maura was a child, it had been her fervent desire to grow up into the renowned beauty her aunt was.

In truth, she wanted Georgette to be her mother. The only child of Lord and Lady Courtwill, she had been born of older parents who had little interest in having a child. They were both respected scientists, and their intellectual pursuits had made them soul mates. There was little time for rearing an unwanted child. How disappointing it must have been for her parents when they realized that they had not even managed to produce an heir.

For reasons Maura could not divine, Georgette had taken pity on her sister’s lonely daughter. Lord and Lady Courtwill traveled extensively, and Georgette made certain there was always a place for Maura in her house hold. Georgette was not a paragon of motherhood. After all, there were balls to attend, evenings at the theater, and handsome scoundrels to charm. A governess and the house hold servants watched over Maura while her aunt enjoyed her adventures.

When Georgette returned, she lavished her niece with attention and humorous stories. In her aunt’s house hold, Maura felt like she had a place. Oh, she loved her parents. In their own way, they returned her affection. They gave her an enviable education for a nobleman’s daughter and clothed and fed her. On one or two occasions, she even joined them on one of their research journeys.

And yet, Maura owed her aunt everything. Georgette had recognized a kindred spirit in the lonely child, and had openly embraced her. She had filled Maura’s dreary childhood with affection, escapades, and laughter.

Only once, a little more than twelve years ago, her aunt had reminded Maura of her debt.

As a result, someone else had paid a high price for Maura’s loyalty.

"Why the frown?" Georgette playfully pinched her niece’s cheek. "Still fussing about the necklace, are you? Well, if all goes according to plan, the necklace will remain in the Worrington family."

Ah, yes, Mr. Rowan Lidsaw. He was the second son of Lord Worrington, and the man’s current favorite. He was three years older than Maura, and she had known him since they were children. When he was not away at school, he had been her confidant and amiable companion who entertained her at Worrington Hall. Since she had turned sixteen, the earl and her aunt had hinted that a match between the pair would be warmly welcomed. Maura should have suspected when she had agreed to join her aunt and uncle in London that Rowan would be included in their romantic machinations.

"Do you ever cease playing matchmaker, Aunt?" Maura said, exasperated by the subject. She rolled her eyes and stepped away from the looking glass. "Rowan is a fine gentleman, and a considerate friend. Nevertheless, he has not begged for my hand or heart. If you have invited me to London so you and the earl can bully poor Rowan into declaring himself, you might as well order a coach so I may return home."

"And miss London?" Georgette taunted lightly, sensing her niece was anticipating the trip as much as she was. "Why would you want to spend the season in seclusion when you could be visiting museums, attending lectures, balls, card parties—"

Exasperated, Maura raised her hands in a surrendering gesture. "Enough! Your argument is sound. I would be a fool to refuse such a generous invitation."

Feeling a whisper of melancholy, she sank into the nearest chair. How could she explain to her aunt that the notion of being leg- shackled to Rowan dimmed the adventure of visiting London? With Rowan at her side, she might as well already be married. She would not be whiling her nights away dancing till dawn, or coyly flirting with mysterious gentlemen from a theater box. At two and twenty, most ladies her age had enjoyed numerous seasons. Many had already married and birthed their husband’s heir. Lord and Lady Courtwill had been too distracted by their scientific pursuits to bother with something as trite as introducing their only daughter to the ton. It was an oversight that Georgette clearly intended to correct.

"Your sadness tears at my heart." Her aunt knelt at Maura’s feet. "While Worrington and I would like nothing better than for you and Rowan to announce your betrothal, I understand a young lady’s heart. You are young, beautiful, and possess the wealth to indulge your whims. You want not just one gentleman to worship you; you desire all of London to bow at your feet."

Maura giggled at the outrageous suggestion. "Really, Aunt—"

Georgette touched her finger to Maura’s lips. "You crave romance. A courtship. No, do not deny it. What lady wants to be bound to a gentleman who has not taken the time to woo her? You are innocence and ripe passion. You deserve to experience the gentle seduction of love poetry and small tokens of affection. To feel the excitement of a lover’s unguarded stare across a crowded ballroom, or taste the sweetness of a stolen kiss in the shadows of a garden."

Her aunt used the back of the chair to rise slowly from her cramped position. She placed the palm of her hand on the small of her back. "Rowan has been remiss in courting you properly, and perhaps your uncle and I are to blame. A conquest easily won is never prized as the battle almost lost. Besides, if my stepson cannot withstand a little competition for your heart, then he is undeserving of my niece."

Maura jumped up from her seat and embraced Georgette. Her aunt was a complicated mix of ambition and generosity. When provoked, she could be a formidable enemy. It was a lesson Maura had never forgotten. However, it was appreciation for Georgette’s insight and kindness that overwhelmed Maura. "You must think I am an ungrateful wretch for wanting more, when you and Worrington have given me so much."

"Not at all. I want you to be happy, little girl," Georgette murmured into Maura’s hair. "Besides, I think you underestimate Rowan’s interest. I predict you will lead him on a merry chase this season!"

Satisfied that Maura’s fears had been eased, Georgette deftly changed the subject back to their earlier discussion of what jewelry should be taken to London. As her aunt displayed the Worrington emeralds, Maura privately wondered if Georgette had considered that their trip to town would bring them into Everod’s realm. Worrington’s heir would not be pleased when he learned of their arrival. Maura could only pray that the gentle-man’s thirst for revenge had waned over the twelve years of silence.

Excerpted from Scandalous by Night by Barbara Pierce

Copyright © 2008 by Barbara Pierce.

Published in 2008 by St. Martin’s Press

All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

Having a rich English ancestry that can be traced back to the 1500s, BARBARA PIERCE credits her grandmother and the romantic family tales she was told as a child for inspiring her early fascination with English history.

Striving to balance her love of history with the need to tell a compelling story, she debuted in 2000 with A Desperate Game. Since then, she has created two successful family series, the Bedegraynes and the Carlisles.