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One night of scandal avo.., p.1
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       One Night of Scandal (Avon Historical Romance), p.1

           Teresa Medeiros
 
One Night of Scandal (Avon Historical Romance)


  TERESA

  MEDEIROS

  ONE

  NIGHT OF

  SCANDAL

  To Mama,

  for getting out of bed every day,

  whether you felt like it or not.

  And for Daddy,

  for being there when she did.

  CONTENTS

  Chapter 1

  Carlotta Anne Fairleigh was coming…

  Chapter 2

  Although the candlelight cloaked his…

  Chapter 3

  “The girl is ruined. Utterly ruined.”

  Chapter 4

  Hayden had just sunk deep into the…

  Chapter 5

  “The marquess of Oakleigh,” the butler…

  Chapter 6

  When Hayden emerged from the strained…

  Chapter 7

  As Hayden carried Lottie through the…

  Chapter 8

  Lottie would have been hard pressed to…

  Chapter 9

  There was nothing spectral about the…

  Chapter 10

  Lottie decided the next morning that if…

  Chapter 11

  Dear Miss Terwilliger…

  Chapter 12

  Martha looked utterly aghast. “My lady,…

  Chapter 13

  After that night, Allegra became a model…

  Chapter 14

  Rising from the bench, Lottie faced…

  Chapter 15

  Hayden stiffened in shock as Lottie’s…

  Chapter 16

  Sir Edward Townsend swept Allegra up…

  Chapter 17

  Hayden had stripped away both his finery…

  Chapter 18

  “Lottie! Lottie, wake up! It’s nearly…

  Chapter 19

  “Aunt Lottie’s come home! Aunt Lottie’s…

  Chapter 20

  An ill wind was blowing at Oakwylde…

  Chapter 21

  “Did you get it? Did you get it? Oh…

  Chapter 22

  Although every gaze in the enormous…

  Chapter 23

  Someone was banging on the door of…

  Epilogue

  Author's Note

  Acknowledgments

  About the Author

  Praise for Teresa Medeiros

  Cover

  Copyright

  About the Publisher

  Chapter 1

  Gentle Reader, I’ll never forget the moment I first laid eyes on the man who planned to murder me…

  LONDON, 1825

  CARLOTTA ANNE FAIRLEIGH WAS COMING out. Unfortunately, what she was coming out of at the moment was both her elaborate ball gown and the second-story window of her aunt Diana’s Mayfair mansion. She might have managed the latter without incident if the silk flounces adorning the bodice of her gown hadn’t become entangled in a nailhead protruding from the inside of the windowsill.

  “Harriet!” Lottie whispered frantically. “Harriet, where are you? I’m in dire need of your assistance!”

  She craned her neck to peer into the cozy sitting room she’d inhabited quite comfortably until only a few minutes ago. A fluffy white cat drowsed on the hearth, but Harriet, like all of Lottie’s good fortune, seemed to have vanished.

  “Where has that silly goose of a girl gone?” she muttered.

  As she struggled to work the ruffle free of the nail, the slick soles of her kid slippers danced and skidded along the tree branch that jutted out just below her, vainly seeking purchase.

  She stole a reluctant glance over her shoulder, her arms aching from the effort. The flagstones of the terrace below, which had seemed so attainable only minutes before, now seemed leagues away. She considered bellowing for a footman, but feared it was her brother who would come running and discover her predicament. Although only two years her elder, George had recently returned from his first Grand Tour of the Continent and was only too eager to lord his newfound sophistication over his baby sister.

  The discordant strains of a string quartet tuning their instruments wafted out of the French windows on the north side of the house. In a very short time, Lottie knew she would hear the clatter of carriage wheels and the murmur of voices and welcoming laughter as the cream of London aristocracy arrived to herald her debut into their society. They would have no way of knowing their guest of honor was hanging out of a window two stories above, having forfeited her one stab at respectability.

  She might not have found herself in such a predicament if Sterling Harlow, her brother-in-law and guardian, had hosted her debut at Devonbrooke House, his sprawling West End mansion. But his cousin Diana had cajoled him into conceding the honor to her.

  It took no great leap of Lottie’s overactive imagination to envision her aunt’s guests gathered around her broken body as it lay sprawled on the flagstones. The women would press their scented kerchiefs to their lips to muffle their sobs while the men “tsked” and “tutted” beneath their breath, murmuring what a terrible pity it was that they would be forever deprived of her vivacious company. She gave the rich violet poplin of her skirt a rueful glance. If the gown didn’t suffer too much wear on the way down, perhaps her family could bury her in it.

  It was only too easy to imagine their reaction as well. Her sister, Laura, would hide her tear-blotched face in her husband’s lapels, her tender heart broken for the last time by Lottie’s foolhardiness. But most damning of all would be the bitter disappointment etched on her brother-in-law’s handsome features. Sterling had spent considerable time, care, patience, and money to mold her into a lady. Tonight had been her last chance to prove to him that all of his efforts had not been in vain.

  Lottie might have still been sitting in front of the dressing table in the sitting room had her best friend Harriet not come trotting into the room just as her aunt’s abigail was putting the finishing touches on Lottie’s hair.

  Recognizing the hectic patches of color staining Harriet’s cheeks, Lottie had quickly risen from the dressing table. “Thank you, Celeste. That will be all.”

  As soon as the maid had departed, Lottie had rushed to her friend’s side. “Whatever is the matter, Harriet? You look as if you’ve swallowed a cat.”

  Although Harriet Dimwinkle wasn’t overly plump, everything about her gave the impression of roundness—her dimpled cheeks, the wire-rimmed spectacles shielding her fawn-colored eyes, the shoulders that remained slightly stooped despite hours of being forced to march around the parlor of Mrs. Lyttelton’s School of Deportment for Fine Young Ladies with a heavy atlas upon her head. Her name alone had earned her merciless teasing from her fellow students. It hadn’t helped that the girl was a tad bit…well, dim.

  Never one to tolerate injustice, Lottie had appointed herself Harriet’s champion. She was loathe to admit, even to herself, that it was the very thickness of Harriet’s wits that allowed the good-natured girl to go along with most of Lottie’s schemes without worrying about the consequences.

  Harriet clutched at Lottie’s arm. “I just overheard two of the maids whispering. You’ll never guess who’s been living right next door practically under your aunt’s nose for the past fortnight.”

  Lottie glanced out the window. The darkened house that shared the square was barely visible through the falling shadows of dusk. “No one, would be my guess. The place is as quiet as a tomb. We’ve been here since Tuesday and I’ve yet to see a living soul.”

  Harriet opened her mouth.

  “Wait!” Lottie backed away from her friend, holding up a warning hand. “Never mind. I don’t wish to know. The last thing I need tonight is Laura chiding me for being such an incorrigi
ble busybody.”

  “But you’re not a busybody,” Harriet said, blinking like an owl behind her spectacles. “You’re a writer. You’ve always said your sister lacked the imagination to make the distinction. Which is why I simply must tell you—”

  Lottie interrupted her again. “Do you know who Sterling asked my aunt to invite tonight? Miss Agatha Terwilliger.”

  Harriet paled. “Terrible Terwilliger herself?”

  Lottie nodded. “The very same.”

  Agatha Terwilliger had been the one teacher at Mrs. Lyttelton’s who had refused to grit her teeth and attribute Lottie’s penchant for mischief to “high spirits” or a “passion for life.” She’d been more interested in shaping her student’s character than in placating Lottie’s adoring and powerful guardian, the duke of Devonbrooke. The dour spinster had thwarted Lottie’s will at every turn, earning her undying enmity as well as her reluctant respect.

  “Sterling wants me to prove to Miss Terwilliger that I’m no longer the wicked little hoyden who stitched the fingers of her gloves together and rode the pony into her bedchamber. When I descend those stairs tonight, that shriveled old battle-axe”—Lottie winced at her lapse—“that dear, sweet woman will see only a lady, fit for entry into polite society. A lady who has finally embraced the noble notion that virtue is its own reward.”

  Harriet’s expression turned pleading. “But even the most virtuous of ladies enjoys a nice hot sip of scandal-broth now and then. Which is why you simply must know who’s been staying in that house. Why, it’s—”

  Lottie clapped her hands over her ears and began to hum the second movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Unfortunately, years of eavesdropping had honed her lip-reading skills to a fine art.

  “No!” She slowly lowered her hands. “It can’t be! The Murderous Marquess himself?”

  Harriet nodded, her limp ringlets flopping about like a spaniel’s silky brown ears. “The very one. And the maids swear this is his last night in London. He’s leaving for Cornwall on the morrow.”

  Lottie paced the length of the faded Aubusson rug, her agitation growing. “On the morrow? Then this might be my last chance to catch a glimpse of him. Oh, if only I’d have known earlier! I could have climbed right down that tree outside the window and slipped into his courtyard with no one ever the wiser.”

  Harriet shuddered. “And supposing he’d caught you spying on him?”

  “I’d have nothing to fear,” Lottie said with more conviction than she felt. “From what I can gather, he only murders those he loves.” Seized by inspiration, she hurried to her trunk and began pawing through its contents, tossing kid gloves, silk stockings, and hand-painted fans left and right until she found the pair of opera glasses she’d been seeking. “I don’t suppose it would hurt to steal a little peek, do you?”

  With Harriet nearly trodding on the scalloped hem of her gown, Lottie crossed the room and threw open the window. She leaned out and pointed the tiny gold binoculars at the house next door, thankful the tender green buds on the linden tree hadn’t yet sprung into full leaf. Although no more than a stone wall separated them, the two houses might have existed in different worlds. Unlike her aunt’s home, there was no lamplight spilling from the house’s windows, no bustle of servants, no boisterous laughter as children and spaniels clattered up and down the stairs and romped across the parquet floors.

  Harriet rested her round little chin on Lottie’s shoulder, giving her a start. “Do you think your uncle might have invited him to the ball?”

  “Even if Uncle Thane invited him, he wouldn’t come. He’s an infamous recluse,” Lottie explained patiently. “And recluses are notorious for scorning invitations to even the very best of soirees.”

  A dreamy sigh escaped Harriet. “You don’t suppose he’s innocent, do you? The scandal sheets may have convicted him, but he was never even tried in a court of law.”

  Lottie shooed away a curious robin that had alighted on the branch above her head and was trying to peck at her golden topknot of curls. While it was all the fashion to adorn one’s coiffure with feathers, she doubted an entire bird would go unnoticed. “What more proof do you require? He returned one night to his London town house to discover his beautiful young wife in the arms of his best friend, where she’d no doubt been driven by his callous indifference. He called her lover out, shot him dead, then whisked her back to the wilds of Cornwall, where she died only a few months later after taking a most suspicious tumble over a cliff and into the sea.”

  “If I were him, I’d have shot her instead of the lover,” Harriet said.

  “Why, Harriet, how delightfully bloodthirsty!” Lottie exclaimed, twisting around to eye her friend with new appreciation. “Only last week The Tatler ran a very cryptic tidbit implying that his wife’s ghost still roams the halls of Oakwylde Manor, wailing for her dead lover. They say she won’t rest until justice is done.”

  “I would think that would be most distracting to the digestion. Perhaps that’s why he chose to spend a fortnight conducting business in London.”

  “Blast him anyway! The contrary creature has drawn all the drapes.” Lottie lowered the opera glasses. “I had every intention of modeling the villain of my very first novel in his dastardly image.” Sighing, she tugged down the window sash. “But I suppose none of that matters now. After tonight, I’ll be officially on the marriage mart, which means all of London will be abuzz with gossip every time I use the wrong fork or sneeze without using my handkerchief. Before you know it, I’ll be cloistered away in some country estate with a dull squire of a husband and a passel of brats.”

  Harriet sank down on an overstuffed ottoman, reaching to stroke the cat napping on the hearth. “But isn’t that what every woman wants? To marry a wealthy man and live the life of a lady of leisure?”

  Lottie hesitated, at a rare loss for words. How could she explain the unease that had been creeping through her heart? As her debut into society approached, she had the suffocating sense that her life was about to come to an end before it had even begun.

  “Of course that’s what every woman wants,” she said, as much to reassure herself as Harriet. “Only a featherbrained girl would dream of becoming a celebrated Gothic novelist like Mrs. Radcliffe or Mary Shelley.” She slid onto the stool in front of the dressing table, dipped some rice paper in a jar of powder, and dabbed at her fashionably retroussé nose. “I can’t very well disappoint Sterling again. He and Laura have welcomed me into their home, seen to my education, and bailed me out of all my scrapes. He’s been more of a father to me than a brother-in-law. When I walk down those stairs tonight, I want to see his face shining with pride. I want to be the lady he dreamed I would become.”

  She sighed, wishing the regal young woman in the mirror didn’t look quite so much like a stranger. The doubt shadowing her features made her wide blue eyes seem much too large for her face. “We might as well resign ourselves to our fate, dear Harriet. Our hellion days are behind us. After tonight, there will be no more grand adventures for either of us.”

  Lottie’s eyes met Harriet’s in the mirror. “After tonight,” she whispered. The next thing Lottie knew, she was hiking up her skirts and hooking one leg over the windowsill.

  “Where are you going?” Harriet cried.

  “I’m going to steal one look at our notorious neighbor,” Lottie replied, swinging her other leg over the windowsill. “How can I ever hope to write about a villain with any conviction if I’ve never seen one?”

  “Are you sure this is prudent?”

  Her friend’s concern gave Lottie pause. It was unlike Harriet to have reservations about anything Lottie suggested, no matter how outlandish. “I have the rest of my life to worry about being prudent. But I have only a few precious moments left to be me.”

  She lowered herself out the window. By stretching, she could just touch her toes to the branch below. During her years at finishing school, she’d gained ample experience scrambling both down and up trees to elude unreasonable
curfews and diligent headmistresses.

  “But what will I do if your sister and aunt come to fetch you?” Harriet called after her.

  “Don’t fret. With any luck, I’ll be back before the musicians strike up the notes of the first waltz.”

  And so she might have been had the stubborn nail not snagged her flounces and Harriet hadn’t abruptly vanished. Still dangling between window and tree, Lottie gave the fabric one last hopeless tug. Without warning, the flounce ripped itself free. She swayed, torn between grabbing for the tree and grabbing for the fluttering silk. Her hesitation cost her the last of her balance. She went plunging backward through the branches, a shriek lodged in her throat.

  Fortunately, she didn’t plunge far.

  She landed in a prickly cradle formed by three branches misted with delicate spring greenery. She was still dizzily trying to absorb the fact that the gentlemen of London would have to mourn her loss another day when Harriet’s shoulders and head appeared in the window above her.

  “Oh, there you are!” Harriet said brightly.

  Lottie glared up at her. “What did you do? Slip out for a spot of tea?”

  Oblivious to Lottie’s sarcasm, Harriet held aloft a dark garment. “I went to fetch your mantle. It’s only May, you know. There’s still a bit of a chill in the air. You wouldn’t want to catch an ague. It might be the death of you.”

 
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