I’m happy to be back at Susana’s Parlour! I always enjoy my visits!
My latest book, The Contraband Courtship, came out in July. This is the second book in The Arlingbys series and it deals with Malcolm Arlingby, the Earl of Wroxton, the brother of Rowena Arlingby whose romance with the Earl of Brayleigh was the subject of the first book of the series, A Collectors Item. In that story, Rowena helped solve a murder case a dozen years old, which had resulted in the unjust exile of Malcolm to the Continent when he was falsely accused. In The Contraband Courtship, the Earl of Wroxton has returned to his estates for the first time in all those years to find that smugglers are using his property with impunity to move casks from the coast inland. However, that’s not all he finds.
He meets his headstrong neighbor, Helena Keighley, who is most definitely not impressed with “the Wicked Earl,” as he’s been dubbed. Neither is Malcolm all that fond of Helena. They make the perfect pair, though. Despite Malcolm’s name having been cleared, there are still those in the ton who look upon him as scandalous. Helena, unbeknownst to Malcolm at first, is no less welcome in polite society, having been the subject of a scandal during her Season.
I’ve written before on the topic of smuggling in the Regency, an issue that plays a huge role in The Contraband Courtship. This time, I’d like to talk about the courtship, not the contraband. Though if Helena hadn’t been part of a scandal years earlier, this courtship would be considered contraband (OK, we’d have to tweak the definition a bit as the word refers to goods, not relationships).
Courtship in the Regency
was a very serious undertaking that came with a fair number of rules. It was, for the woman, a matter of planning for the rest of her life. She wasn’t allowed to take an overt part in the process (baffling, no?) in order to protect her reputation and, in fact, had very little control in the matter other than the ability to refuse an unwanted suitor.
The man looking for a wife bore the responsibility of winning over a prospective bride. While technically powerless, that prospective bride did have some behind-the-scenes ability to influence the outcome. The fine art of flirting or subtler tactics such as seeking introductions while not appearing overly eager are a couple examples. Women had to be very careful, though; if they were seen as taking too much control, they ran the risk of being labeled hoydens.
Of course, the whole process was further complicated by those rules I mentioned. The couple could:
- Never be alone in a room
- Never travel in a carriage without a chaperone
- Never speak privately (though dances were one way of bypassing that one)
- Not correspond with or give presents to one another
- Not have any intimate touch, including handshakes (again, dancing helped)
- Not call each other by their Christian names
- Not dance more than two dances on a given evening (rumors of an engagement were sure to follow if they did)
Indeed, the allowed form of greeting and leave taking was a curtsy or a slight bow of the head.
How does this impact Malcolm and Helena? In many respects, it gave them a lot more freedom. Plus, they were out in the country and not in ever-watchful London. Though, the social graces were minded in the country, too, there were fewer eyes trained on them. As a man in this situation, Malcolm has more freedom than Helena anyway; however, that’s only increased due to the location and his already somewhat tarnished reputation.
Helena, on the other hand, is in a unique position.
Her scandalous reputation also frees her from many of the usual social strictures of courtship. In her case, the freedom extended to not even considering the issue. After her disgrace, she retired to her family’s estate which she ultimately managed for her minor brother. Marriage was, in her mind, simply no longer an option.
Helena is much luckier than many Fallen Women, as they were known. It was not uncommon in the era for disgraced women to become prostitutes or courtesans. The difference between the two was often the level of companionship and the price. Courtesans offered more than just sex; a man could find companionship and, depending on the courtesan, intellectual entertainment.
Given Helena’s character, I cannot imagine either option would have appealed to her. Fortunately for her, she had an understanding family and the opportunity to return home to tend the estate. I find her to be a woman of great courage in the face of unfortunate circumstances. Such courage, strength of will and intellect make her the perfect woman for Malcolm, the Wicked Earl.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this peek into the courtship customs of the era. As always, it’s been a joy for me to share them with you!
About The Counterfeit Courtship
Malcolm Arlingby, Rowena’s headstrong brother from A Collector’s Item, settles into his new life as the Earl of Wroxton. Content to while away his time in the decadence he missed during his exile from England, Malcolm hasn’t been paying attention to the duties that come with the title. A letter from the mistress of a neighboring estate warns of smugglers using Malcolm’s lands for their dastardly deeds and he must finally put aside his entertainments to handle the business of being an Earl.
Helena, the one who sent the letter, is not the sour spinster Malcolm was expecting, however. She is a beautiful, vibrant and equally headstrong woman who is more than ready to take Malcolm to task for ignoring his duties. As the pair becomes embroiled in solving the problem of the smugglers, a strong attraction develops. The smugglers aren’t going without a fight, though.
Will a chance encounter with his new neighbor bring Malcolm all the things he never knew he wanted? Or, will the smugglers destroy it all? Find out in “The Contraband Courtship.”
THE CONTRABAND COURTSHIP
Malcolm Arlingby, Earl of Wroxton, awoke as the first rays of sun peeked around the edges of the burgundy velvet curtains that hung over the windows of his bedroom. He laid comfortably for a moment, appreciating the fineness of the linens that covered the bed, the luxury of the over-stuffed goose feather pillows, and the enormous size of the carved mahogany bed in which he rested. It was a far cry, he thought, from his life not six months before.
So much had changed, and yet so much had not. He still awoke early, no matter how late he stayed out, and he slept lightly, always with a sense of his surroundings. But this morning was much as the past mornings had been; he was safely ensconced in a luxurious bedroom, servants at his beck and call, the Wroxton fortune at his disposal, no longer having to live by his wits or earn his keep at the gambling table.
He rolled over and lazily eyed the woman who lay next to him. She slept soundly, her dusky hair strewn across the white pillows, one arm thrown over her head, the lace-edged sheet pushed down so one rounded breast peeped above it, its nipple a dusky pink. Malcolm reached out, touching it gently with one finger. Instantly it puckered and elongated, and, with a knowing smile, he lowered his lips, eagerly suckling the pointed tip.
“Mmmm.” The woman stirred, and, without opening her eyes, raised one hand to cradle his head. “What time is it?”
“Early, I think,” responded Malcolm. “Do you wish to go back to sleep?”
“I’m here for you any time, Malcolm,” she answered. Slowly she raised her eyelids to reveal a pair of liquid brown eyes flecked with gold. “Day or night.”
“Well, it’s barely day, but if you have time for me now…” Malcolm pushed the sheet down to cup her other breast in his hand as he moved to straddle her.
“Always,” she answered, her hands moving caressingly over his muscular chest, to follow the arrow of blond hair downward under the soft linen sheets. Malcolm groaned as her clever fingers found their target, and speared his fingers through her hair, as he pressed his mouth to hers, kissing her deeply. When he raised his head, she smiled and repeated, “Any time.” Then with a salacious smile she added “Any way
Much later Malcolm turned away from Estella and rolled onto his back, reaching out for a cigarette. “I can’t imagine what ails your husband, to neglect you so, Estella. You’re beautiful, more than willing, but not demanding, and amusing to converse with. Yet he is almost never at your side.”
“Richard is always pleasant company, when he is about,” she replied. “But he married only to provide an heir for the estates. It’s his duty, and he did it, but not with enthusiasm.”
“So, not much in the petticoat line, it seems,” Malcolm remarked. “Do you suppose he is a man milliner?”
“Oh, I have no notion,” Estella answered. “I am very fond of him you know, and he’s very helpful when it comes to all manner of things; he knows where the best tea is to be had, and the latest modiste, and is always completely correct when it comes to advising one on looking one’s best. But he has his own friends and amusements and really, I am not inclined to trouble him, if he does not trouble me. As long as I bring no cuckoos into the nest, he will not be unhappy.”
She rolled over onto him, propping herself on his chest with her forearms. “But why are we wasting our time discussing my husband? I promise you, he is not spending a moment worrying about me.”
Some hours later Malcolm strode down St. James Street, impeccably clad in dark blue coat of fine wool broadcloth. His cravat was tied in the mathematical knot, and his biscuit-hued pantaloons were tucked into betasseled Hessian boots with a mirror-like polish. He had left Estella sipping chocolate in his bed, well-sated. He knew she was clever enough to be gone by the time he returned; she knew better than to be demanding, and, in return, he indulged all her whims. Never, he thought, had he been more contented.
He strode up the stairs to White’s with a jaunty step. As he entered, a few heads turned, and he greeted their looks with a grin. Taking up a paper, he seated himself in a high-backed leather chair.
“Who’s the dashing fellow who just walked in?” asked one elderly gentleman of the man next to him.
Horace Worth gave him a surprised look. “Haven’t you heard? Oh, I’d forgot you’d been on the Continent these past months. Holmwood. That is the Earl of Wroxton.”
The gentleman turned in surprise. “Wroxton? I thought Felix Arlingby was the current earl.”
Mr. Worth shook his head. “No, that fellow is Malcolm Arlingby, the old earl’s son, returned to take up his birthright. “
The other man gaped. “Not the murderer?”
“No, not the murderer, or so it seems,” said Mr. Worth. “It appears that we were all mistaken. Malcolm Arlingby’s name has been cleared, and he has succeeded to his father’s estate.”
“Well, I’ll be damned. He was gone for twelve years or more, was he not?”
“At least. And now he’s back and has been cutting quite a swathe through Society,” said Mr. Worth with a shrug. “The ladies, of course, cannot resist his looks or his reputation as a bit of a rake, and as for the men—outside of some jealousy among them, there’s nothing not to like. He’s a fine horseman, a pleasant companion, pays his debts of honor, and is generous with his funds.”
As they gazed at Malcolm, an elegant dark haired gentleman entered the room and paused for a moment, obviously searching for someone. His sharp green eyes eventually lit on Malcolm, and he strolled across the room, dropping into the chair across from him. The elderly gentleman drew in his breath.
“Isn’t that Brayleigh?” he asked. “Malcolm Arlingby and the Earl of Brayleigh always loathed each other. I wonder they are sitting across from each other.”
Mr. Worth laughed. You have been gone far too long,” he said. “Brayleigh is married to Wroxton’s sister. They are—well, I will not say they are the best of friends, but they tolerate each other. I understand Lady Brayleigh will brook nothing else.”
“Well, I’ll be,” said his friend, staring openly at the two men. “Brayleigh and Wroxton are being civil to one another? I would never have believed it if I didn’t see it with my own eyes!”
Brayleigh looked around and sighed. “You might as well put down your newspaper, Arlingby, I know you’re aware I’m here,” he said.
Malcolm lowered the offending broadsheet a few inches and peered at Brayleigh over the top of it. “Am I to have no peace?” he asked peevishly.
“None at all,” said Brayleigh with equanimity. “I wonder you can tolerate the attention. Horace has obviously just told the entire story to Rupert Holmwood. He is gaping at us as though we are here solely for his entertainment.”
Malcolm shook his head. “It is always thus. Just when I think everyone knows of it, some damned idiot turns up who must be enlightened.” He folded the paper and tossed it on the table next to him. “I don’t imagine you’re here for the pleasure of my company, Brayleigh. What does my sister want?”
A small smile appeared on Brayleigh’s face. “How well you understand me,” he murmured. “Rowena indeed asked me to find you and bid you wait upon her this afternoon. I gather she has some matters she wishes to discuss with you.”
“Lord help me,” said Malcolm. “What is it now?”
“I apprehend it has something to do with the Wroxton estates,” replied Brayleigh. “That, and your friendship with the lovely Estella Lacey.”
Malcolm groaned. “She has heard of that, has she?”
Brayleigh raised an eyebrow. “All of London has heard of that. Surely you were not under the misapprehension that the pair of you have been discreet?”
“We have no reason to be discreet, so I can’t see why anyone should care,” complained Malcolm. “Her husband has no interest in her now that she has given him a son, and it is not as though I have a wife to worry about.”
“And yet, everyone does care, because you are the notorious Malcolm Arlingby,” said Brayleigh. “Really, I would think that at this point you would be beyond being surprised.”
Malcolm shrugged. “It can’t be helped,” he said. He gave Brayleigh a rueful grin. “And a bit of gossip doesn’t matter to me. After all, if I survived the last twelve years, I can survive this.”
“Then you will not mind returning with me to Brayleigh House and explaining it all to Rowena,” said the earl calmly.
“I’d rather go to Almack’s and dance with chits just out of the school room all night, and you know it,” said Malcolm cheerfully. “But I suppose I had better get it out of the way. Rowena is nothing if not persistent.”
“A wise choice.” The earl stood. “The sooner you get this over with, the sooner you can return to the charming Estella.”
Malcolm rose reluctantly. “If Rowena doesn’t have other plans for me,” he said gloomily.
Brayleigh laid a sympathetic hand on his shoulder. “I have no doubt that your sister only has your best interests at heart,” he said.
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” replied Malcolm.
The two men strolled out of the room, leaving Mr. Holmwood gaping after them.
One half hour later Malcolm and the earl entered the library at Brayleigh House, where a woman sat in an overstuffed leather chair, reading a book. She looked up when the two of them entered, and rose to her feet, her dress of figured muslin fluttering around her. Her wide violet eyes sparkled as she ran a few steps and threw herself into Brayleigh’s arms.
“Alaric, you found him,” she said. “How kind of you to help me.”
Brayleigh dropped a kiss on her cheek and slipped one arm around her waist. “It was not difficult, but I’m always happy when I can please you, my dear,” he answered.
“Lord, you two are tiresome,” protested Malcolm, throwing himself into an armchair. His stretched his long legs out in front of him and glared at them. “I think I liked it better when you were quarrelling all the time. At least that was entertaining.”
Brayleigh shook his head and released his wife. “I’m sorry you no longer find us amusing, Wroxton,” he said. “I, on the other hand, find this existence entirely pleasurable.”
He looked at his wife with a satisfied smiled, and she flushed slightly and reached out and took his hand.
“No, don’t start pawing at each other again, I can’t abide it,” said Malcolm. “What did you want to see me about, Rowena?”
With an amused glance at her husband, Rowena sank into the chair across from him, while Brayleigh leaned on the corner of the desk, his arms folded.
“Oh ho, it must be something very serious,” said Malcolm. “I count on you, Brayleigh, to give me your support.”
“Oh, I don’t meddle in Arlingby affairs,” said the earl calmly. “You will have to contend with Rowena in this matter.”
Malcolm groaned. “All right, what is it then?”
Rowena made an exasperated sound. “Malcolm, I know that you missed England and the pleasures of London dreadfully while you were on the Continent,” she said briskly. “But you have been the Earl of Wroxton for eight months now, and you still have not visited the estate.”
“I stay in close contact with the bailiff,” said Malcolm peevishly. “And both Father and Felix took good care of Wroxton. There is no reason for me to interfere in its running. Indeed, I doubt I’d be thanked for poking my nose into it.”
“But surely you wish to visit Wroxton and see how things go on,” said Rowena. “And you did tell me you wished to rebuild the stables.”
“What are you going on about? I have my horses here in London, where I can use them, and I’ve sent several to Wroxton as breeding stock. I don’t know why you’re suddenly so concerned about this,” Malcolm asked. “I think I deserve to enjoy myself a bit after everything that happened.”
“Of course you do, dear,” Rowena assured him. “It is just that—well, that it has been some time, and I wonder if perhaps you need to—well, think of the future a bit more.”
“Is this about Estella?” asked Malcolm suspiciously.
“Well, it is not only about Mrs. Lacey,” said Rowena, looking a bit embarrassed. “But, certainly, I have my concerns about her. She is married, Malcolm, and unlikely to be free to wed you any time soon.”
“Wed me?” Malcolm gave a hoot of laughter. “I should say not!”
“You see?” said Rowena. “I know that you wish to enjoy yourself, and I would never say you did not deserve to, but surely you are aware of the duty you owe your family.”
“Rowena, I have years ahead of me to sire a pack of children, if that’s what I decide needs to be done,” said Malcolm. “But for now, I have no interest in leg shackling myself to one woman. I’ve spent twelve years on the Continent living by my wits, and damn, I want to enjoy myself now. One of Estella’s principal charms—outside of the most obvious ones—is that she cannot importune me to marry her!”
“You are being very vexing,” said Rowena. “It is not that I wish to deny you your pleasures, Malcolm—”
“I should say not! And, sister dear, should you even know about Estella?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Rowena crossly. “All the world knows about the two of you. I’m hardly an innocent. The gossips are only too happy to inform me that half the ladies in London have either succumbed to you since your return or to Alaric prior to our marriage.”
“Only half? Well, you might have taken Brayleigh out of circulation, Rowena, but you can’t force me into such a staid existence.” Malcolm gave his sister a shrewd glance. “There’s more here than you’re telling me. You might as well come out with it.”
Rowena exchanged a glance with Alaric. “Well, if you must know, I have received a letter from Helena Keighley.”
“Who?” asked Malcolm.
“Helena Keighley. The daughter of Sir Douglas.” At Malcolm’s blank look, Rowena sighed. “Really, Malcolm, this is why you must go to Wroxton. Sir Douglas Keighley’s estate marches with Wroxton to the west. You must have met him, and Helena, dozens of times when you were a child.”
“Oh yes, Keighley, I remember the name,” said Malcolm. “Sir Douglas, you say? As I recall, Father said he was a bruising rider to hounds.”
“Yes, Malcolm, I’m sure he was,” said Rowena impatiently. “But this has nothing to do with fox hunting. “
“A pity, I might almost be tempted to leave London for that,” said Malcolm. “What does this Miss Keighley want?”
“I received a letter from Helena a few days ago,” she said, producing a folded piece of paper and waving it at Malcolm. “She would have written to you, but had no idea where to find you, and we are acquainted. She is a year or two older than I am, but we did spend some time together as children, and of course I have met her at assemblies and house parties. Surely you remember her.”
“I can’t be bothered to remember your childhood friends, Rowena,” said Malcolm. “I had other things to attend to. What does this mysterious letter say?” asked Malcolm.
Rowena unfolded the letter and perused it quickly. “Here it is,” she said. “It seems that French brandy is being smuggled in through Kent, and the lack of interest of the Earl of Wroxton in his estate has been taken as a sign that his lands are free to be used for this purpose. While Felix Arlingby was not a strong-minded gentleman, he cared enough to prevent such nonsense, but now landings occur almost nightly. I have no doubt that some of the servants have been bribed to allow this. The whole affair is unsettling; I have no desire to see Keighley lands overrun by ruffians because Wroxton is poorly managed. It is imperative that your brother cease his wastrel ways and take up the responsibilities that come with his birthright. He was ever an irresponsible young man, but surely the circumstances of the past years must have brought him some wisdom, no matter how slight. Please inform him that he is needed immediately at Wroxton.”
“What a termagant!” said Malcolm. “She doesn’t even know me, and she’s calling me a wastrel!”
“You might not remember Helena, but I have no doubt she remembers you,” said Rowena. “You were wont to tease her unmercifully when we were young.”
“Did I?” asked Malcolm. “Well, she no doubt deserved it; she sounds to be remarkably pert. And why isn’t Sir Douglas attending to this? It seems deuced odd to me that Miss Keighley should be meddling.”
“Sir Douglas is elderly and—and not quite right in the head,” said Rowena. “And her brother is only seventeen. Helena has been managing the estate quite successfully for some years.”
“She’s unmarried, I suppose?” asked Malcolm. When Rowena nodded, he shook his head. “I can see her now; a prim and proper spinster, glaring at me from behind spectacles.”
“That is not fair,” protested Rowena. “Helena is really quite lovely.”
“Then why is she unmarried?” retorted Malcolm.
Rowena looked nonplussed. “Really, Malcolm, Miss Keighley’s personal life is not what I wanted to talk to you about. Surely you can see that you must go to Wroxton and take care of this.”
“I don’t see why the bailiff can’t handle it,” said Malcolm. He groaned when Rowena glared at him. “Oh, very well, I will go to Wroxton. You are right; I should have gone months ago. I am the new earl, and it’s time I took charge.”
At Rowena’s look of amazement, he laughed. “I’m not such a wastrel as you and Miss Keighley think, little sister,” he said. “I know I should have visited long ago, but I didn’t want to force cousin Felix to leave hastily, and then, after he moved out—well, then other things happened, and I didn’t care to leave London. But it shouldn’t take long to tidy this up, and I can do the pretty in the county; talk to the gentry, visit the tenants, and be back in no time.”
Rowena blinked. “Thank you, Malcolm.”
He laughed. “You thought it would be much harder to convince me, didn’t you? But some time away from London won’t go amiss—Lady Hartsmoor seems determined that I shall marry that whey-faced daughter of hers, and if I make myself scarce, perhaps some other fool will catch her eye.”
“I’m just pleased you are going, and, to be truthful, I wouldn’t want you marrying Lady Maria; she seems dreadfully dull. I will write to Helena and tell her that you will be visiting Wroxton soon.” She paused. “You won’t take Mrs. Lacey with you, will you? I’m not sure the countryside is ready for her.”
“I doubt she’d go,” said Malcolm cheerfully. “She’s very fond of me, but fonder of her modiste, I’d say. And when I return she’ll be that much happier to see me.”
He stood and dropped a kiss on Rowena’s cheek. “I will try to not disgrace the Arlingby name,” he said teasingly. “But this Miss Keighley sounds terrifying. I only hope I can stand up to her!”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Rowena fondly. “I’m sure you will take care of things quickly, and Helena will be a great help to you. She is very sensible and intelligent.”
Malcolm grinned. “So, not my sort of woman at all,” he laughed. “I’ll leave in a few days, and be back before you know it.” He shook Alaric’s hand and, with a wink at Rowena, sauntered out of the room.
Rowena shook her head as the door closed behind him. Alaric walked over to her and took her in his arms.
“Why did you not tell him about Helena Keighley?” he asked.
Rowena wrinkled her nose. “He was gone when the scandal broke, and does not know of it. There is no reason to spread gossip, particularly when I have no idea what truly happened. Helena never speaks of it, and I know better than most about being compromised! I see no reason to cause her further distress.”
“He is expecting a dried up spinster,” said Alaric. “I’d say Miss Keighley will be a bit of a surprise.”
Rowena laughed. “Indeed, she will. I suppose it is too much to hope that Malcolm will understand how extraordinary she is.”
“Your brother? He can’t see past the end of his nose,” said Alaric. At Rowena’s cross look, he chuckled. “And now, my dear, I am weary of the subject of the Earl of Wroxton. Perhaps we can find a more congenial way to amuse ourselves.”
With that, he lowered his lips to Rowena’s, and she very soon put Malcolm out of her mind.
Malcolm left Brayleigh House in a thoughtful mood. He knew that Rowena was right, and that he should have traveled to his estates long ago. But he had always found an excellent excuse not to visit; at first he had not wanted to rush the removal of his cousin, who had been named the earl in his absence, and then there had been innumerable amusements to attend and the threads of old friendships to pick up. And Estella, of course. She had blown into his life and into his bed in a matter of days, a situation that he did not regret.
In his more reflective moments, he realized too that he had avoided visiting Wroxton because it made him think of his father and the days before his exile on the continent. He had respected his father, but as a youth had thought him too staid and serious. To a youthful Malcolm it had seemed as though his father’s interest in his estates and his books had kept him from enjoying life to its fullest. Visiting the Wroxton lands as the new earl would mean that it was time for him to take up the responsibilities and duties of his father.
Malcolm ran a hand through his fair hair and frowned. It had to be faced, he supposed. It was not as though he would have to stay long, though. He would nip down to Kent, make sure the local authorities were on the job, spend a week or so placating the neighbors, and see that Miss Keighley was no longer upset. It was a good thing she was a spinster, he thought. He knew the ladies found his dashing ways attractive, and he had little doubt that he would be able to charm her.
His soon arrived home and he entered the hallway with a frown on his face. He started slightly when he saw Estella in the center of the room, looking charming in a lavender-hued muslin morning dress with VanDyked trim. She gazed into the mirror, holding a deep poke bonnet, as though she had just been preparing to nestle it over the abundance of dark brown ringlets that surrounded her piquant face.
She blinked her large hazel eyes at him in the mirror and turned, smiling. “What are you doing back here so quickly?” she asked. “I was just leaving.”
Malcolm paused a moment to admire her fine figure, and then took her hand. “It’s just as well,” he said. “I need to talk to you.”
“What did you need to say to me, Malcolm?” she purred, moving closer to him.
“It’s not that, Estella,” said Malcolm hastily. At the look on her face, he shook his head. “Not that I’d mind at all, but I do want to talk to you for a moment.”
“Talk?” said Estella. “You rarely want to do that.”
“It’s just that I need to go down to Wroxton for a week or so,” he said.
“Whatever for?” asked Estella. “Surely your bailiff can handle matters for you. The countryside at this time of year would be dismal.”
“No doubt,” said Malcolm. “But I’ve avoided it as long as I can, and now there is a matter of smugglers. The neighbors think they’re using my property and want me to put a stop to it.”
“You?” Estella laughed. “You’d be more likely to encourage them, no doubt. I’ve never known you to question where your brandy comes from.”
Malcolm grinned reluctantly. “It’s not that I particularly care about the smugglers. But they’re upsetting the tenants and the neighboring gentry. My sister tells me it is high time I take up my duties as earl.”
Estella pouted charmingly. “Your sister again,” she said. “Why does she feel she needs to meddle in your life?”
“My sister is the reason I’m the Earl of Wroxton, and not dead, or still in exile,” observed Malcolm. “Besides, in this case, she is right.”
“Are you sure she’s not simply trying to get you away from me?” asked Estella.
“Well, I don’t suppose it bothers her that we’ll be apart,” observed Malcolm. “But I don’t think that’s her main concern.”
Estella glanced at him out of the corner of her eye. “I could go with you,” she ventured.
Malcolm laughed. “Didn’t you just say the country is dismal at this time of year? I would enjoy your company, but it won’t do to shock the gentry on my first visit home in twelve years. It’s not that I won’t miss you, Estella, but you wouldn’t be happy at Wroxton.”
“So you will simply leave me here alone? I shall grow bored,” she warned.
“Don’t try to make me feel sorry for you; I doubt you’ll miss me for a second,” said Malcolm cheerfully.
“And if I find another man to amuse me?” asked Estella.
“That’s your business, darling,” said Malcolm cheerfully. “I never asked you to be true to me.”
Estella made an exasperated noise. “You might at least pretend you care for me,” she said.
Malcolm chuckled. “If you thought I cared for you, you’d take advantage of me, my dear,” he said. “But I’ll admit that I will miss you, especially at night.”
Estella smiled winningly. “I will miss you, too,” she murmured.
“Then I’ll look forward to my return,” said Malcolm cheerfully. “I’ll wrap up this little problem and take care of Miss Keighley as quick as can be and come back to town before you have time to notice I’ve gone.”
“Miss Keighley?” asked Estella.
“Aye,” said Malcolm. “She’s the daughter of the neighboring estate. It seems she wrote to my sister to complain of the smugglers. I take it she’s a bit of a dragon and will need some soothing.”
“Miss Helena Keighley?” asked Estella.
“Dash it, stop saying her name over and over,” said Malcolm. “Yes, Miss Helena Keighley.”
“Oh,” said Estella, stretching the word out to several syllables.
“Oh, what?” asked Malcolm crossly.
“I think I am acquainted with your Miss Keighley,” said Estella.
“She’s not my Miss Keighley,” responded Malcolm. “She sounds remarkably as though she’s nobody’s Miss Keighley.”
“Well, then I believe I know Miss Helena Keighley,” said Estella. “We are much of an age, and she came out the same year I did.”
“Well, she’s unmarried, so I gather she didn’t make a splash,” said Malcolm.
“Oh, she made a splash,” said Estella, looking a bit smug.
“Damn it, Estella, if you want to tell me something, tell me,” said Malcolm peevishly.
Estella shrugged. “Miss Keighley was quite lovely, if you care for lanky redheads.”
“I prefer petite brunettes, myself,” said Malcolm promptly.
“I suppose I should be glad of that,” Estella said coyly. “As I said, she was quite lovely in her own way, but she didn’t attract many suitors.”
“And why was that?” asked Malcolm.
Estella shrugged. “She seemed to think rather highly of herself,” she ventured. “She was forever expressing her opinion. The gentlemen were rather taken aback.”
Malcolm grinned. “I imagine they were. Rowena has that effect on men, though Brayleigh doesn’t seem to care.”
“Well, I thought her quite tiresome,” said Estella. “I suppose someone may eventually have made her an offer, as her father is wealthy, but then something happened.” She paused dramatically.
“I suppose it must have, as she is unmarried,” said Malcolm unhurriedly.
Estella glowered at him for a moment. “If you are minded to be unpleasant, I won’t go on.”
Malcolm shrugged. “Then don’t,” he said. “I’ve no interest in old scandals.”
“Oh, you are impossible,” laughed Estella. “But I will tell you anyway. “
“I thought you might,” said Malcolm.
“One night, at a rout at Montagu House, she was discovered in a compromising situation with Lord Denby,” said Estella, lowering her voice in a conspiratorial manner. “They were quite alone in a curtained anteroom, and he was holding her in his arms!”
Malcolm wrinkled his nose. “I can’t like Denby,” he observed. “He always seemed to be a bit underbred.”
“That is not the point,” said Estella. “Miss Keighley apparently found him attractive enough! But then something even more shocking happened!”
“Well, I’m not all that shocked by your first revelation,” observed Malcolm. “I know from experience that things aren’t always what they appear.”
“You cannot possibly be defending her,” objected Estella.
“I don’t know the woman, why would I defend her?” said Malcolm. “She’s making my life deuced uncomfortable just now. I only said that things aren’t always what they appear to be.”
“You can be so tiresome at times,” said Estella. She paused, and then leapt back into her story. “As I said, the story became more complicated. Lord Denby proposed, of course, as he was honor bound. And Miss Keighley turned him down!”
“Did she so?” asked Malcolm. “Smart girl. As I said, Denby always makes me a bit uncomfortable.”
“Well, she was kissing him, so I have no idea why she turned him down. She was ruined, of course! No man would have her, as she clearly had no care at all of her virtue!”
Malcolm laughed at that. “Since when do you have such a care of yours, Estella?”
Estella drew herself up. “I am married, and there is no breath of doubt with regard to my son’s parentage,” she replied, offended.
“But you haven’t seen your husband in months,” said Malcolm. “And it’s no secret whose bed you are in each night.”
“Richard doesn’t care. And I am married,” Estella repeated.
“Ah, I see,” said Malcolm. “That makes all the difference.”
“It does indeed,” said Estella. “We all know how these things work. If you mean to say Miss Keighley is much like me, I think I will be very hurt.”
“Oh, I’m sure she’s not like you at all,” said Malcolm.
Estella looked at him closely, wondering whether to be offended. She finally smiled charmingly. “You are such a wretch, Malcolm,” she offered. “I am convinced you are trying to provoke me.”
Malcolm smiled lazily. “Now, why would I want to do that? I am happiest when you are pleased with me, to be sure.”
“If you wish me to be pleased with you, you will no longer compare me to Miss Keighley,” replied Estella.
“If you will forgive me, I am tired of the subject,” said Malcolm. “Surely there is something more interesting we can do than discuss a spinster I do not remember who is doing her best to make my life uncomfortable.”
Estella glanced at him from under her lashes. “I was about to leave,” she said. “But if you wish, I could stay for a bit.”
“A capital idea,” said Malcolm.
One week later Malcolm rode up to Keighley Hall on a well-made dark bay hack. He eyed the timber-framed manor house closely; while it was several centuries old, it was well-kept, and the paths and grounds surrounding it were manicured and verdant. Clearly, whoever was attending to the land had a fine attention to detail.
A footman emerged from the house to take the reins of his horse, and he dismounted gracefully, with a word of thanks.
“Is Sir Douglas at home?” he asked.
“Sir Douglas does not see visitors,” said the manservant. “If it’s about anything to do with the estate, you’d be wanting Miss Keighley.”
Malcolm sighed. He had hoped he might be able to avoid the redoubtable Miss Keighley. But he could recognize when he was defeated.
“Is Miss Keighley available, then?” he asked.
“She’s not in the house,” ventured the man. “She’d be down at the stables. I don’t know how long it will be before she returns.”
“Well, I have business with her that can’t wait,” said Malcolm. “I’ll find her for myself.”
“Miss Keighley might prefer that you wait in the house,” said the footman doubtfully. “I could show you in and fetch her for you.”
“It doesn’t matter,” said Malcolm. “I know her from when we were children. I doubt she will care.”
Under the lackey’s doubtful gaze, Malcolm stalked off in the direction of the stables. As he walked, he looked around him, absently admiring the tidiness of the grounds. It compared favorably to Wroxton, and he felt a pang of guilt about the neglect his ancestral lands had suffered over the past months. Miss Keighley clearly knew well how to run an estate. He was too accustomed to Rowena’s unconventional behavior to consider that odd, but he nonetheless felt a reluctance to meet her. He had a constitutional dislike of being ordered about, and he feared that Miss Keighley was very much the sort of woman who would feel he needed guidance.
Miss Helena Keighley pushed a lock of auburn hair out of her eyes and sighed, as she felt at the loose bun she had gathered her hair in before coming out to check the horses that morning. Reassured that it was not going to come down completely, she rubbed her hands over the canvas apron that covered her faded blue-grey linsey-woolsey dress, and the equally worn dark blue spencer she wore over it. She looked at the groom and the horse he was holding in the barn aisle.
“Is he lame, Macklin?” she asked.
“Yes, came out of his stall this morning limping, miss,” he replied.
“Poor boy,” Helena crooned to the horse as she reached down to lift his hoof. She felt it carefully, finding a sensitive spot. “You can feel the heat in it. ‘Tis almost certainly an abscess,” she said. “Soak it in Epsom salts, and put a drawing poultice on it. Perhaps we can bring it to the surface, so it will drain.”
“Aye miss, I thought the same. I expect we’ll have a bit of time with him for the next few weeks though. The wet weather in the spring always seems to bring it out in him.”
Helena smiled her agreement, and patted the horse’s neck in sympathy, then blew gently at his soft nose. The smile brought a glow to her face, and lit up her large brown eyes. Framed with thick black lashes despite her auburn hair, and surmounted by finely shaped brows, they typically surveyed the world with a bit of cynicism, but were softened now by her affection for the horse. She had a straight nose, high cheekbones and plush-lipped mouth above a very firm chin. With her fine complexion and delicate color, she presented a rather startling contrast to the decidedly shabby garments she wore. Helena raised her face from the horse, removed her apron and looked at the groom.
“Thank you, Macklin,” she said. “I suppose I will go back to the house now.”
The groom nodded and walked away, leading the limping horse slowly. Helena stood for moment, enjoying the pleasant scent of the hay in the stalls and savoring the time alone. While she was truly devoted to tending the estate that belonged to her father and would pass from him to her brother, at times it seemed as though she never had a moment for herself. If tomorrow were fine, perhaps she would shirk some of her duties and take a book down to the cliffs for a few hours.
Her reverie was interrupted by the sounds of boot heels ringing on the floor of the stables, and a cheerful whistle. She looked up to see a tall, slender gentleman sauntering towards her, dressed very elegantly in a riding coat of a green so dark it was reminiscent of a pine forest at night, buff colored breeches, and white topped riding boots, clearly made to measure and polished to a mirror shine. His pale hair was modishly cut à la Brutus, and his angelic blue eyes were wide set in a face that, while not classically handsome, held a great deal of charm. She drew in her breath slightly. Many years had passed, but she certainly recognized Malcolm Arlingby, despite the tiny lines that now creased the outer edges of his eyelids. It seemed her letter to Rowena had done its work.
She looked down at herself, momentarily dismayed by the shabbiness of the grey dress she was wearing, but then dismissed the thought. If Malcolm had not already heard of her scandalous past, someone was bound to enlighten him soon. It made very little difference what she might look like. She stepped forward into the sunlight that slanted across the stable.
Malcolm stopped, the whistle arrested on his lips. His eyes trailed over Helena’s slender figure and widened.
“I was expecting a groom, or perhaps a stable boy,” he said cheerfully. “But I think you’ll do, my girl.”
Helena’s eyes widened at his impertinent words, and she opened her mouth to give him a sharp set down, but Malcolm continued.
“Where’s your mistress? I have business with her, and was told she was to be found in the stables.”
Helena froze. Clearly, he not only did not recognize her, and had mistaken her for a servant. She glared at him disdainfully.
“You’re a haughty one, ain’t you?” said Malcolm, a laugh in his voice. “Is Lady Helena not about then?”
Aware that her genteel speech would give her away, Helena said nothing.
Malcolm shrugged. “Women,” he said. “Never where you want them to be. But you, on the other hand—well, if I’d remembered the serving girls were so lovely in Kent, I’d have been back before this.”
Before Helena could react, Malcolm had an arm firmly about her shoulders and had pulled her close to his lean body. Helena was startled to realize that, despite her own height, her head just barely overtopped his shoulder. Before she could contemplate that fact any further, however, Malcolm lowered his head to hers and kissed her firmly on the lips. She made an outraged sound.
“Hush,” said Malcolm cheerfully. “It’s not as though you haven’t been kissed before, my girl.”
Helena raised her hands to his chest to push him away, but somehow found herself only pressing her palms against his broad shoulders, as she breathed in the hint of sandalwood and cinnamon scent that must have lingered from his morning ablutions, spiked with the warmth and scent of his skin. It was remarkably appealing, and she breathed in deeply, feeling her lips soften against his. The earl clearly felt her relax, for his hands slid down to her waist, pressing her chest against his. He slanted his head a little and she felt his lips pressing hers open. She felt her bosom swell and tighten, and her lips opened involuntarily and when Malcolm’s tongue touched hers, a bolt of sensation shot downward, and she felt an instant urge to press her hips forward against his. Suddenly, reality intruded on her, and she pushed firmly against Malcolm’s chest, wresting her lips from his. He moved back a half step, and then dropped his head to briefly kiss the side of her neck before straightening.
Malcolm gazed down at her steadily, a hint of perturbation in his eyes. “That was—remarkable,” he said softly. “Some local lad is a lucky fellow, to be sure.”
Helena stepped back, fighting the urge to press her hand to her lips. She had made a grave mistake it seemed, in not informing Malcolm who she was. But that was, nonetheless, no excuse for his behavior. It seemed that his years abroad had not taught him discretion. But, she realized ruefully, hers had been equally lacking. Something about Wroxton’s scent, feel, and presence seemed to call to her on an elemental level.
Malcolm pulled himself together and, fishing in his pocket, produced a guinea, which he pressed into her hand. “I thank you, my dear,” he said. “I did not mean to impose upon you, but your loveliness could not be resisted. I meant to see your mistress, but somehow I cannot regret her absence. Do you know where I might find her?”
Helena paused a moment, and then tilted her chin at him proudly. “I don’t know,” she said, producing her finest Kentish accent. It was imperfect, but the earl did not appear to notice. “But her abigail told me she means to go to the assembly at Folkestone tonight.”
Malcolm groaned. “I can’t abide country dances. So provincial and the refreshments are terrible. Do you think Miss Keighley has returned to the house?”
Helena shook her head firmly. “No, she’s not in the house,” she assured him.
About the Author
Alicia Quigley is a lifelong lover of romance novels, who fell in love with Jane Austen in grade school, and Georgette Heyer in junior high. She made up games with playing cards using the face cards for Heyer characters, and sewed regency gowns (walking dresses, riding habits and bonnets that even Lydia Bennett wouldn’t have touched) for her Barbie. In spite of her terrible science and engineering addiction, she remains a devotee of the romance, and enjoys turning her hand to their production as well as their consumption.