Courting Scandal by Donna McAteer by Donna McAteer - Read Online

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Summary

Meet the daring ladies of The Bliss Society. They want what their husbands give their mistresses... pleasure. The Bliss Society is at it again. But this time Darcy, Francine and Corina may be getting in over their heads as they attempt two rescues at the same time. The innocent yet clumsy Isabel Lawrence has tumbled headlong into the life of the notorious Ice Earl, Jordan Lennox, and right into the vicious gossip pages. And then there's the plight of Cecily, trapped in a loveless marriage with Simon Hammond, Viscount Byford. Not only was the marriage never consummated, Cecily's father is determined to put an end to the relationship by taking his daughter back to America. As always, more than sex and marriage are at stake as The Bliss Society uncovers some family secrets and a scandalous affair sure to unhinge the ton. Genre: Romance/Historical Fiction Read the series by Donna McAteer and Catherine Stang! MORE THAN A WIFE [BLISS SOCIETY SERIES] COURTING SCANDAL [BLISS SOCIETY SERIES]
Published: Whiskey Creek Press on
ISBN: 9781603137676
List price: $3.99
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Courting Scandal - Donna McAteer

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Chapter 1

It had all been going so well... Isabel Laurence blinked back tears as she stared up in horror at the man she’d accidentally spilled punch all over.

I’m sorry. I was... She sputtered, trying to help him wipe it off. I wasn’t watching where I was going. I... Last time it had been Earl Milborough and this time it was Viscount Byford. Would she ever go to a ball without embarrassing herself? She frantically kept trying to wipe, but he pushed her away.

Just go, Viscount Byford snapped, before you make an even bigger spectacle of yourself.

She turned, trying to disappear into the crowd, when a man stepped in front of her and she ran smack into him. She was afraid to look up to see who it was. But heaven help her, she had a sinking feeling she knew.

There she is, her mother’s voice broke in beside her.

Drat, she was trapped with no where to run.

Isabel, Earl Milborough was just asking about you.

She’d been right. Slowly she glanced up into the famous light blue eyes of Jordan Lennox, Earl of Milborough, the man the ton had dubbed the Ice Earl. This was just great. Why him? She’d have thought after their last encounter that he would run the other way whenever she was in the room. Why now? She’d waited a month for the ton to quit buzzing about her. This was all she needed.

Lady Isabel. His voice was smooth and deep. There was definitely nothing cold about it. But it made her shiver. It’s my pleasure.

She doubted that. What on earth possessed him to seek her out? After she’d dumped punch on him last time.

Isabel. Her mother nudged her.

Good gracious, she’d been woolgathering. Good evening, my lord. She tried to keep her voice steady. I’m surprised... Her mother bumped her foot, trying to keep her from blurting out whatever was on her mind. Not that it was usually possible, but her mother kept hoping. This time Mother cast her a pleading look.

This is a nice surprise, Isabel corrected, keeping her tone light.

His lips curved in a faint smile. I’m sure it is. One that neither of us was expecting. But then again, here we are.

Here we are indeed. Now please leave before anyone sees us talking.

May I have this dance?

Good gracious, he wanted to dance? Was he crazy? Who wanted to dance with bumbling Belle? Hadn’t he just witnessed what she’d done? Maybe if she was lucky he hadn’t. Still, did she want to risk dancing with him?

Her mother was shooting her a go on look.

Why? So she could embarrass herself with him, too?

Yes. That would be nice, she said, forcing the words out of her dry throat. Her tone sounded stiff and it occurred to her that she was being rude. But he didn’t seem to mind. Milborough offered her his arm, watching her with an expression she couldn’t quite read.

Her mother smiled as Isabel took The Ice Earl’s arm and let him lead her out to the dance floor.

His body was warm and solid against her. She liked the protected feeling of being held by him.

Oh, please don’t let me embarrass myself again.

* * * *

Do you have a comment? Amanda Hayworth asked quietly.

Not one I’d like to see printed. Simon Hammond, Viscount Byford, tried in vain to wipe the punch off his evening clothes. Damn and blast, some people are better off not going out in public. Gad, had he said that out loud? From the way Amanda Hayworth was staring at him he must have.

She was taller than any woman he knew. Almost tall enough to look him directly in the eyes with that look that sent most men running. And who could blame them? Amanda Hayworth was the author of Society Notes which was the biggest gossip rag in town. No one wanted to admit they read it, but everyone secretly did. Hell, it was the secret pleasure of half the women of the ton, including his wife, to pore over with their morning tea.

For some reason Miss Hayworth had enjoyed gossiping about him. Hell, not that long ago she made him the talk of the ton. Of course, his behavior didn’t help. He was still trying to unravel that mess.

I had better not see this incident in tomorrow’s paper. That blasted chit is Duke Ashlun’s daughter. I don’t want to be on his bad side. But really, the girl needs some finishing.

She lifted her brows slightly at his bluntness. I quite agree. Although it doesn’t look like Earl Milborough thinks so. Even after Isabel’s last debacle, Milborough is offering her a dance.

Byford turned to watch the ever clumsy Isabel in the ever proper Milborough’s arms. She was chattering away, while he looked like he was trying to keep both of them from embarrassing themselves.

Don’t you have anything to say? Miss Hayworth prompted as she studied his reaction.

Ashlun better— he muttered and stopped before he could reveal more than he wanted.

Better what?

Do a better job of protecting his daughter, Simon blurted out, wishing as soon as he’d said it that he’d kept his bleeding mouth shut. Damn, she had a way of making him say things...

Amanda cocked her head and he could almost see tomorrow’s article coming together in her head. Bloody, bleeding hell. He needed to get away from her.

And you think she needs protection from Earl Milborough? she continued, in a tone that suggested that she already knew his response.

Would Jordan Lennox ruin an innocent was what she was really asking. Probably not, but who knew how low this generation of Lennox men would sink.

You don’t like Earl Milborough very much, do you? she said, pressing when he didn’t answer.

That was an understatement. His gaze snapped to meet her knowing one. He was shocked that she’d have the gall to bring that subject up. The rumors about him and Milborough’s past were bantered around, he knew, but no one dared talk about them to his face. He’d hoped with his mother’s passing the rumors would die along with her, but apparently not. From the look on Miss Hayworth’s face he’d guess she’s found out all about the duel, and the deaths of the late Earl Milborough and his father.

You could easily dispel the rumors...

Not bloody likely. Not that he wouldn’t mind exposing Milborough’s sordid past. But that meant exposing his too, and he wasn’t keen on doing that. His mother deserved to rest in peace, especially when she’d had so little of it during her life.

Ah, hell, this night is complete, Simon muttered, letting out a harsh breath as his wife approached. The last thing he wanted to do was expose their tense relationship to Miss Hayworth, especially since she was part of the reason for it. If she’d just keep him out her gossip rag.

There you are. Cecily slipped an arm through his. Then she pulled it away, shaking her hand off. You’re all wet.

"Thanks to Ashlun’s clumsy daughter who managed to spill a glass of punch on me. I’m surprised you didn’t see it. Half the ton did."

She’s now dancing with Milborough, Amanda put in, glancing back and forth between them, obviously hoping for a reaction.

No doubt, since she wasn’t going to get one from him, she was hoping to get it from his wife.

Well, at least someone is dancing with her. The poor girl. Cecily pinned Amanda with a harsh look, not saying what he knew she wanted to.

In this case dancing with no one might be better than getting tangled up with one of the Lennox men, but he doubted his wife would think so. Jordan Lennox might be an earl, but he could be a cold bastard. Just like his father, Milborough was ruthless. Jordan didn’t have an eye for the ladies the way his father, the late earl, had. But just wait. He would. All the Lennox men had unhappy marriages. It ran in their blood. Too bad they had to pull others into their problems.

Not that his family was any better. His parents either fought or ignored each other. His father disappeared for long periods of time while his mother entertained herself. Considering his childhood, he still couldn’t believe he’d agreed to wed at all. His wife hadn’t known what she was getting herself into when she married him. But then why would she? Cecily was the daughter of a rich American who had been set on marrying into a title. Her father didn’t know about his family’s scandal or lack of funds, which had been a blessing for him. Miss Hayworth, however, had been bent on finding out all about their hasty union. Hell, everyone assumed he married Cecily for her money. Which was only half true.

It was no secret that he’d been ill-prepared at seventeen to manage the holdings that came with his father’s title. He’d done his best, but that wasn’t near good enough.

He needed Cecily’s money to maintain his estates and pay off the debts his mother had run up before and during her long illness.

Money wasn’t the only reason he’d agreed to Silas Jefferies’ outrageous offer.

There was something about Cecily. A spark. One he was afraid he extinguished. Hell, what did he know about being married? He could blame their troubles on Miss Hayworth’s embellished stories in her Society Notes, but the truth was that it was his fault for being an ass. He’d come close to having everything he’d ever dreamed of and now was on the verge of losing it all.

It’ll take more than one dance for Miss Laurence to lose her bumbling reputation, Amanda said, breaking through his thoughts. She shot his wife a look that dared her to argue.

He could feel Cecily tense beside him. If they didn’t leave soon they’d be the topic of Amanda’s Society Notes tomorrow. Especially after his wife decked Miss Hayworth, which she looked close to doing.

One of these days— Cecily started.

I was going to ask you to dance, my dear, Simon interrupted before Amanda pushed his wife into losing control, but in light of the condition of my clothes, I think it’s best that we leave. Good evening, Miss Hayworth.

Cecily glared at him. Although she obviously wanted to, his wife didn’t say a word as he took her arm, leading her off to get her cloak. As he retrieved it and wrapped her in its soft folds, she turned to him. If I didn’t know better, I’d think you planned this.

What? He stared at her.

You heard me. You didn’t want to come tonight and now you don’t have to stay. Are you changing at home or your club? She pushed his hands away from the ties and pivoted, walking off.

* * * *

Excuse me, Byford said as he brushed past Corina and her friends. But there is no excuse for me, he muttered as his wife disappeared in the crowd. Bloody, bleeding hell, why does life have to be so complicated?

Corina wasn’t sure if he was talking to her or himself. Before she could think of a proper response, he’d pushed through the crowd, following his wife.

If I didn’t dislike him so much I’d almost feel sorry for him, Francine said softly beside Corina.

I don’t, Darcy said. "Viscount Byford deserved getting punch spilled on him. But poor Isabel Laurence. You know Miss Hayworth will have the punch episode and her dancing with Milborough all over her Society Notes."

Do you think Milborough realizes what he has done by dancing with her? Francine took a sip of her punch.

If he hasn’t he will soon. Darcy took a sip of hers too, casting a questioning glance at Corina. You are being very quiet.

I’m sorry. It’s the first time I’ve run into Byford since our husbands had their talk with him. I’d been trying not to, but I’d been watching Simon and Cecily. Miss Hayworth has not been very nice to her and I’m sure from hearing bits of the conversation between the Hammonds and Miss Hayworth that they will be mentioned tomorrow, too. Corina sighed, shaking her head. Cecily is American. I doubt she has any idea how to handle this situation she has found herself thrown into. She turned to face her unlikely friends: Francine Weatherby, Marchioness Renford, and Darcy Haversham, Countess Denton. Darcy blinked back at her in surprise.

Are you saying... Darcy found her voice first.

I don’t know what I’m saying. Corina waved a hand. I’m still adjusting to being a part of the Bliss Society.

These two women had come to her aid when her marriage was falling apart. If it hadn’t been for their friendship and support she and her husband never would have been able to put their broken marriage back together. They had even eased her entry back into society. That was no small feat, considering she had been Andre’s mistress before she became his wife.

Unlike Corina, Darcy and Francine came from good families. They’d both just had the unfortunate luck to be the subject of Amanda Hayworth’s gossip rag. Francine had been caught kissing known rake Rolland Weatherby, Marquis Renford, and the scandal of it all had pushed them into a hasty marriage. Darcy’s fate had been sealed when she danced with Sebastian Haversham, Earl Denton, whose family had held a grudge against hers for generations. Amanda had fanned speculation about the couple, which led to their elopement, to Gretna Green. With their husbands being friends, Darcy and Francine had helped each other deal with troubles that came with hasty marriages. They’d vowed to help others to do the same. That’s how they’d pulled Corina into their group. That and the fact they wanted to learn her ‘mistress secrets’.

Darcy waved a hand in front of Corina’s face. Woolgathering?

Corina shook her head. Sorry. Seeing Cecily and Simon reminded me of how we all met.

Francine frowned. So you want to help them? I’m not so sure that’s a good idea, considering your past with Byford.

I agree. I just...

Hate to see a couple hurting. Darcy patted her shoulder. Us, too. That’s why we started The Bliss Society to share with other couples what we learned. I don’t want to make things worse for them.

Corina took a long drink. She’d just put that part of her past behind her and found acceptance in society. Did she dare risk ruining that? Across the room, she caught her husband’s gaze. We can discuss it at our next meeting.

Besides, if we agree to proceed we’ll have to plot this one very carefully to avoid anyone getting hurt, Darcy agreed.

It’s a good thing for Isabel that Earl Milborough is such a smooth dancer. If she’d only relax... Francine trailed off as their husbands came toward them.

* * * *

Isabel was trembling slightly in his arms, but Jordan had to hand it to her; she’d held his gaze and kept talking. Though, heaven knows, he wasn’t the easiest person to talk to. He wasn’t really listening; he was too busy looking at her. Or staring was more like it. Though what it was about her that he found so intriguing he couldn’t quite put his finger on. She wasn’t exactly beautiful, not in the classic sense, but there was something appealing about her. Maybe it was all that dark curly hair softly framing her pixie face, or those huge expressive hazel eyes with their thick lashes and equally expressive eyebrows. She had the cutest little bowed mouth that he was watching, instead of listening to what she was saying, but he couldn’t help himself.

Am I boring you? You can just tell me to stop.

He blinked, realizing she was asking him a question.

I like hearing you talk. Are you enjoying the evening? Gad, he sounded like a dolt.

The ball is lovely.

The stiff way she said it made him smile broadly. He didn’t mean to. He usually wasn’t rude, but he couldn’t help being amused by her. Right up until you tossed punch all over Byford, he choked out.

She winced. You saw that? Hopefully you’re the only one who did.

He doubted that, but he didn’t have the heart to tell her.

I’m surprised you asked me to dance then. After last time and all, I’d have thought you’d stay away from me.

That wasn’t your fault. It was your first ball and you were just nervous. Besides, you saved me from a boring dinner as Lady Hilda’s partner.

She laughed nervously. So you are saving me in return?

Something like that. Though what, he didn’t quite know. He just felt a tinge of sympathy for this awkward young woman who’d become the most recent victim of Amanda Hayworth’s Society Notes. So besides the... he cleared his throat, "incident —are you enjoying the ball?"

It is lovely. She repeated his words with an impish grin.

He arched a brow, not used to having anyone dare tease him. Most women were vying for his money and title. They took every dance too seriously. Not this one. She spoke her mind without reservation. It shocked, appalled, and enticed him.

Well, I could prattle on about the dresses and the music, but since you don’t like to talk I thought I’d be brief. Her grin was playful.

"Don’t do so on my account, because then I’d have to talk."

She stiffened, the playfulness leaving her expression. Are you making fun of me?

I’m not very good at talking to women. It was refreshing to not have someone be careful around him. Because of his family’s reputation people often tip toed around him. He was enjoying the fact that she did not. No, making fun of you is the last thing I would want to do.

Then I apologize for the insinuation that you did. Thank you for dancing with me, Earl Milborough.

It was my pleasure. He reluctantly released her as the music ended.

He could see that she was trying to figure out if he meant it or not by the look in her eyes. She was never going to be one to hide her feelings; that was for sure.

I see my mother motioning for me. I better go.

He watched her slip through the crowd.

You were saved, old chap, Gilchrest said, beside him. You’re lucky she walked away. One dance with that chit is more than enough, I assure you.

It irked Jordan that the man could be so thoughtless. He started to offer a rude retort, but thought better of it. It just took one person to overhear...

Off by the door he could see Isabel having an animated conversation with her mother, complete with hand gestures. As soon as her father came over, they left.

He glanced around. Should he dance with someone else?

Odd, none of the other more polished girls appealed to him like the one who had just left.

Chapter 2

Bloody hell. Simon had to practically run to catch up with Cecily. She was being lifted up into the carriage when he did catch up. He got in beside her, slamming the door as he dropped down onto the seat across from her. She was upset. That was obvious from the way she refused to look at him.

I promised to spend the evening with you and I intend to. Hell, the way he said it made it sound like a threat. That wasn’t his intention, but it did get her attention.

Don’t do me any favors.

I’m not. The club was sounding more and more like a good idea. Too bad he’d just promised to stay home.

Although not all that far of a drive, the carriage ride seemed interminable. Simon had no idea what to say, so he’d said nothing.

Staring at his wife, who looked utterly miserable, he let out a sigh. What do you want from me?

Nothing.

Now there was a lie if he ever heard one. Of course she wanted something from him or she wouldn’t have locked him out of their bedroom. Their wedding night had been a disaster, or it must have been considering how she behaved after it. Bloody hell, he wished he could remember what happened.

He awoke alone his wife’s room. She’d greeted him with stiff politeness ever since. He was going to make up for it the next night, but he’d found the door connecting their rooms locked.

Like a fool, he’d tried to go on with his life and show Cecily that he didn’t need her. His drinking had made him reckless. That put further strain on their relationship.

Memories of his parents’ unhappy marriage haunted him. Was that what he wanted? With a resounding hell no, he’d tried in vain to be good husband. Yet he could not get past the wall between them that seemed to be growing with each passing month.

The carriage rolled to a stop. He climbed out, reaching up for his wife. Once out, she brushed past him and headed toward the house. He didn’t want to look like he was chasing her, so he didn’t follow too closely behind.

Evening, milord. Howard, his butler met him at the door.

He handed him his coat and hat.

Voices and a squeal came from the parlor. Inside, he found his wife in the arms of a giant of a man.

Howard cleared his throat. Captain Silas Jefferies is here.

He can damn well see that, Jefferies blustered as he lowered Cecily to the ground.

Soon he found himself nose to nose with his very large, very angry father in-law, who had his lapels in his big, beefy hands.

Would you care to explain to me why my daughter wants passage home with no plans to return to England? Jefferies all but growled.

Hell no, but he had a feeling he was going to anyway.

* * * *

Cecily wasn’t sure if she was happy or horrified to see her father. All she knew was that she had to stop him from killing her husband.

Papa, I’m the one you should be yelling at.

I’ll get to you in a minute, Silas snapped, dropping her husband, who had the good graces to brush himself off as though nothing happened. I’m asking your husband what happened.

We’ve been getting around to discussing that, Simon said with enough cold aristocratic tone to make her father stiffen. Just as he obviously intended, Simon seemed to be taking control of the situation.

Her father gave him a look that sent most men running. You should have damn well done so before Brody found out my daughter was planning to sneak back to Bridgeport.

Of course, her father’s assistant, Brody, would know. The man seemed to have a way of knowing everything that went on. Which was probably more than enough to thoroughly provoke her husband. Cecily stepped between them before