The Scandal Before Christmas

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Prologue

Portsmouth, England

December 1816

             It was only fitting that a ramshackle fellow like Ian Worth should arrange to take a girl to wife in the dim, drafty taproom of the Ball and Anchor, a tumbledown public house on the road to nowhere. Nowhere—in Ian’s case—being Portsmouth Harbor, where his ship rode restively at anchor in the dripping, swollen Solent.

            Time and tide were running out.

            “We’re agreed to it, then?” His companion struck out his hand, and took one last, narrow look at Ian through the tavern’s thin blue smoke, as if he were belatedly trying to gauge the level of Ian’s sobriety.

            But Ian wasn’t drunk. He was hungover. And desperate. “Agreed.”

            This was what he had come to—ordering up a wife with the same casual trepidation he normally reserved for stowing volatile powder aboard his cutter. Gingerly taking on dangerous, combustible cargo.

            The likelihood of a hasty, patched-up marriage not blowing up in his face like so much black powder was practically nil, but no less than he deserved for trying to become engaged in a taproom.

            But damn his eyes if such hazardous odds weren’t exactly his favorite sort of gamble.

Chapter One

            The event that precipitated such a dire state of wagering, and the casting of Ian’s anchor deep into the still waters of matrimony, had been the arrival of his father, the esteemed Viscount Rainesford. The old man barged into Ian’s until-that-moment-peaceful breakfast room within the cozy confines of Gull Cottage, and barked, “I need you to marry.”

His father the viscount, despite the advantages of wealth and breeding—or perhaps because of them—was forever barging in. And forever barking. Forever insisting upon having his way.

            But even at such an early hour, Ian was not about to let the old man gain sea room. “Certainly not before breakfast, sir.” Ian made his voice as bland as bathwater. “Do you care for coffee?”

            “Don’t you try to give me the dry end of your wit.” The old man ground the words out of his mouth like grist for his unreasoning anger. “Your brother has broken his damned fool back. Fell from that bloody-minded hunter of mine three days ago. They tell me he’ll never walk again, much less sire children, damn it all to hell. So I need you to have a wife by Christmas.”

“Good God.” Not Ross. Dutiful, obedient, golden Ross. Ian tried not to react to his father’s latest blatant manipulation, but fear for Ross exploded like grapeshot in Ian’s chest, propelling him up and out of his chair, even as his father flung himself down into one. “What has been done for him?”

His father pounded his fist on the table by way of an answer. “Nothing can be done. He’s a damned cripple. If he lives. Useless to me. You will need to take over his duties immediately.”

            Devil take the poor bastard. How could this have happened to Ross? Ross—the brother who had spent his entire life trying to please their unpleasable father, willingly living as the old man directed, serving the family name honestly and dutifully, without a murmur of complaint. Unlike Ian, who had gone to his duty—the career his father had chosen for him in the Royal Navy—grudgingly at best, and cursing his father every queasy step of the way.

And all Ian could think was that it should have been he who was crippled—he was the expendable one. Their father had always said so, and no doubt the old man had always expected his recalcitrant youngest son to be put to bed with a cannonball. More than twelve years in the service of His Royal Majesty’s Navy had put Ian in harm’s way enough times to make his early death both possible and entirely probable.

But Ian had always had the devil’s own luck, and despite those twelve years spent staring down the business end of a cannon, he had emerged relatively unscathed—still the irascible, standby, second son.

But now his father wanted him to do more than stand by. He wanted Ian to take his broken brother’s place.

“Sell out of your navy business immediately, and return home. We must see to the business of making your brother’s betrothal over to you instead.”

The thought was not to be borne. Ian could only be appalled at the idea of so cold-bloodedly transferring his brother’s betrothal—his brother’s very life—to himself. In the face of his father’s angry bluster, he strove for calm. “What has been done for Ross?”

“Nothing. I’ve had them all, the doctors—locals from Gloucester, consultants from London, and specialists from the continent alike. They all say the same thing. Nothing further can be done. Nothing. I wouldn’t have bothered to fetch you if I thought anything more could be done.”

“Jesus God.”

“Best accommodate yourself to being my heir. Sir Joseph Lewis’s daughter Honoria is his only child and his heir, and I expect . . . ”

            Ian had shut his mind to his father’s expectations and machinations. It mattered little what else his father had to say. His initial instruction had been all that mattered—the same as all the previous directives that had come with regularity throughout all the years of Ian’s life. The Viscount Rainesford spoke, and expected the world to jump to do his bidding.

            But Ian was no longer a boy to be intimidated by his father’s perpetual scowl. He was an officer of His Majesty’s Royal Navy. Devil take him, he’d learned to eat colder stares for breakfast.

            No. He had accommodated his father enough. He had done his duty, against his will and against his inclinations, and learned to do it brilliantly. And he’d not have it said that Ian Worth had robbed his brother of his rightful inheritance before he’d even breathed his last. All it needed to make a miserable scandal was for the Viscount Rainesford to settle everything on his vagabond youngest son, only to have Ross recover.

            No. While his brother lived, Ian would do all he could to protect them both from his father’s selfish thoughtlessness.

            And if he could do only that for Ross, Ian would also do this one thing for himself. “I can’t possibly accommodate you, sir,” he lied. “You see, I’m already married.”

 

Chapter Two

 

            Which was how Ian found himself staring down empty end of a tankard in the Ball and Anchor. He’d given his word.

            He’d also seen Ross—dosed into a stupor of laudanum—and after accepting that there really was nothing to be done but give Ross time to try and recover, Ian had retreated to the public house full of morose desperation.

            Ian knocked the empty tankard against the table, and motioned to the stout publican. “Another bitters.” Marriage, he felt sure, should not be contemplated on an empty stomach, or with an empty glass.

Marriage. A wife. A woman to have, to hold, and to keep until death did them part. God help him and the devil take him, she’d have to be a lady, especially if the dire prognostication about Ross’s eminent demise proved to be true—which Ian did not believe—and not just another one of his father’s tricks to get him to do his bidding. Because God knew the old man didn’t want Ian to be the next viscount.

Yet Ian had given his word, and therefore needed to find himself a wife. But damn his eyes, he hadn’t the faintest idea of how to go about the business. Ian didn’t actually know any young ladies. Females—barmaids, widows, and women of all sorts of earthy, working denominations—yes. Ladies of the gently bred and gently spoken type—not at all.

Unlike his obedient older brother, Ian had never gone to London and done the pretty with the society ingenues and their ilk—because he was reasonably sure that you couldn’t have a romping good fuck with an ingenue the way he had with Betty, the charmingly sympathetic, milky-thighed barmaid last night. 

How on earth was he going to abide some gently bred young lady—the same woman day in and day out—for the rest of his life? God’s balls. Here today and gone tomorrow had been the way of his life. And it was the only way he wanted to continue.

And while many men—navy men in particular—would have been perfectly content to breeze through marriage taking their pleasure where they may, the idea held little appeal to Ian. Blame it on his father’s hypocritical example—Ian may have been a bit of a libertine, or at the very least a thoroughgoing sensualist, but it seemed downright dishonest to require fidelity from one’s spouse if one were not prepared to be faithful in return. And he knew, despite thoroughly enjoying sowing his wild oats, that in his own marriage he would require absolute faithfulness. He just hadn’t counted on requiring it quite so soon.

So therein lay the rub. And the trap. And there wasn’t enough ale in all of England to get him out of it.

            “I say . . . Worth, is that you?”  A hearty voice boomed across the low-ceilinged taproom. A tall, ruddy-faced man in his forties strode toward Ian with his hand extended.

            “Colonel Lesley.” Ian pushed back his chair to rise and greet the marine. “God’s balls. I haven’t seen you since the old Audacious. What brings you to the Ball and Anchor?”

            “This filthy weather,” Colonel Oliver Lesley answered jovially, slapping Ian on the back. “I’m selling out, Worth, my boy, selling out. You poor navy fellows can’t sell your commissions to turn any profit like those of us with the foresight to go into His Majesty’s Marine Forces. Ho, Barkeep!” He sat. “Selling out before I’m put on half pay for the peace, like at least half the fleet. And the wife wanted me back. Need to see to the business of my own family the way I’ve seen to England’s, she said. And what about you? I’d heard you’d landed a plum little commission commanding a dispatch cutter.”

            “I have,” Ian agreed. The perfect commission for a navy man who did not like the sea. A commission he did not mean to give up. Channel service put him home—his own home where everything was cheerful and easy, with no one to please and no one to disappoint—once a fortnight. “But come have a drink with me, and keep me from being morose.”

            “Happy to oblige. Ale and kidneys if you have ’em.” The colonel ordered his breakfast, and eyed Ian with some amusement. “But what on earth would a young man like you have to be morose about?”

            Ian was too desperate for secrecy—his misery wanted company. “My father requires that I be married by Christmas.”

Lesley let out a low whistle. “Six days? But marriage is a young man’s lot—once he has a career and a fortune, he must marry. Still, all in all, I’d rather have your job than mine. You only have to marry—I have daughters I’ve got to marry off.”

Desperation made Ian prick up his ears. “Daughters? Any you’d like to part with by Christmas?”

            “Come, come. Young man like you—a handsome man with all his hair and teeth, not to mention limbs, as well as a fortune—shouldn’t have to go a-begging.”

            “And yet I must.” Ian rubbed his hand through his hair, as if he could chafe some sense into his brain.

            Perhaps he should go to town, to enlist his mother’s aid? But if he were honest with himself—something he had very little experience with—he wouldn’t be able to abide the kind of girls his mother or her cronies would see that he met: bright, chatty young misses with plenty of conversation and a love of society, as an antidote to what she called “your dark tendencies.”

            Dark tendencies, indeed. He liked the uncomplicated company of his navy friends, he liked to drink, he liked to gamble, and he liked to fuck uncomplicated barmaids. Hardly the sort of things mothers approved of, naturally, but all in all, there was nothing particularly dark about them. It wasn’t as if he were married. Yet.

“But I’ve not the faintest idea how to go about it.”

“Perhaps you ought to figure out what sort of girl you want first, and then it might be easier to find her.” At his age, the colonel was nothing if not practical.

A barmaid was the first answer that came readily to Ian’s mind, but the Viscount Rainesford would turn out an inappropriate daughter-in-law faster than a ship’s carpenter could sniff out wood rot. Just the thought of his father’s cold, manipulative rage made Ian’s gut turn as sour as a barrel of brine. And his hangover wasn’t helping.

            “A quiet girl,” he mused out loud. “Young enough to comfortably adapt to my ways, but not so young that she can’t manage anything by herself. Because she’ll be by herself when I’m at sea. A quiet, country girl,” he continued as the idea gained merit, “who isn’t forever craving society, and wanting to go to London, and give insufferably tedious balls and dinners.”

A fairly short list of requirements, but that was the gist of it. “Appearance doesn’t matter. Not really. I don’t care if she is blond or brunette, long or short, so long as she can manage herself, and leave me in peace.” Most of the time anyway—he supposed she ought to be pleasant enough to look at, to make it easy to do his duty by the family, and get a brat on her. Poor girl.

            At that less than cheering thought, Ian buried his face in his bitters, draining the tankard to the last. He surfaced to find the colonel regarding him as if he had sprouted two heads. “I know, I know. You think me mad.”

            “I don’t know what to think,” the older man answered with a wary sort of wonder. “Are you quite serious?”

            “I am entirely serious,” Ian said with a young man’s laughing bravado. “A quiet, easygoing girl is all I require. Even a bit of a cipher. But they’re damned thin on the ground this morning.”

            “Not so thin as all that,” the colonel said carefully. “I may have exactly what you require.”

            Ian felt his breath bottle up in his chest. “Are you entirely serious?”

            “Quite. I do have a daughter who might do. My eldest, in fact. A girl who has just turned two and twenty, and a quieter, more unassuming girl you’ll never find. Born and bred in the country, without a thought for London. A quiet, sensible girl. Very happy to be left on her own. Prefers it, actually.”

            Ian’s tankard fell to the table with a thump. “Does she have a portion?”

            The colonel’s answer was swift and sure. “A thousand. And she’s not one for the fripperies. Never exceeded her allowance, very economical.”

            It was enough to consider. And really, what choice did he have? It was not as if he had any other options or ideas to hand. “When might I meet her?”

            “By Christmas, you said? I suppose you’d best come with me now, to Somersetshire, to meet her.”

            Such a trip would take too much precious time, and Somerset was too close to the whole sphere of his father’s influence in Gloucestershire for comfort.

            “Perhaps it might be better to have her see where I live presently, which is where she’ll be for the foreseeable future? Gull Cottage, here on the bay.” Ian made a vague motion out across the gray Solent, but he subdued his hands, and changed tacks at the sight of Lesley’s frown. “It’s lovely, really. And much larger than it sounds. A very handsome property and . . . it would be her dower property in the event of my death.”

            Yes. The plan was forming in his brain, a plan that would serve both his father and himself. If he married the girl and got her with child quickly, his father would get what he wanted—a secure heir whom he might raise to the title instead of Ian, who knew nothing about estates and land management. And once Ian had safely gotten the girl with child, he would be free to return to his command.

            Ian firmed his voice. “I had rather you brought her to see the property, as well as me. So she can see if living there will suit her.”

            The colonel chewed on his bottom lip for a long moment of shrewd contemplation before he spoke. “I suppose I don’t see why not. A visit of a few days’ time, to see if you’ll get on together?”

            “Yes.” Ian swallowed over the hot mixture of trepidation and excitement climbing up his throat. It would work. It had to work.

            “We’re agreed to it, then?”

            Ian extended his hand. “Agreed, sir.”

            And so it had been arranged, right there in the taproom of the Ball and Anchor. Just as he deserved.