A Scandalous Proposal

By: Julia Justiss

Prologue

Emily Spenser crept along the shrub-shadowed edge of the garden at the center of St. James Square. After years of fierce Portuguese sun, the damp morning chill seeped into her bones, and she shivered despite her woolen shawl. Halting at the corner, she pressed herself deeper into the overhang of branches and scrutinized the town house opposite.

Was the knocker off the door? Given the distance and the swirling mist, she couldn't be sure. The windows overlooking the square were certainly shuttered, but as it was barely past dawn, that didn't necessarily indicate the owner was out of town.

Cautiously she retraced her steps, crossed the square behind the shelter of garden, and slipped to the mews beyond. Heart hammering at her ribs, she made herself enter the back gate. Surely at a great house like this, where vendors and suppliers came and went constantly, in her shop girl's apron and mobcap she would attract no special notice.

A soft lull of voices emanated from behind the half-open door of the kitchen wing. Gathering her courage, she hurried across the deserted stable yard, knocked once and entered.

A knot of workers gathered around the glowing hearth, mugs of steaming brew in hand. Picking out an older woman with keys hanging at her waist, Emily dipped a curtsey.

"I've a parcel for his lordship," she announced, mimicking the broad accent of the Hampshire peasantry among whom she'd grown up. "Mistress says as how I was to deliver it personal."

"Lawks, missy, you've a far piece to walk, then," the woman replied with a laugh. "He ain't in Lunnon now."

Damping down a rush of relief, Emily made herself utter instead a dismayed squeak. "But Mistress'll box my ears iff n I don't get this to 'im. He be back today, ma'am?"

"Not likely. Seein's how he sent half the staff on holiday, tellin’em he'd fetch 'em back later, we don't expect 'im anytime soon."

Emily couldn't believe her luck. "He be gone that long?" she asked faintly.

"Aye. Last week, you mighta caught 'im, but he left out suddenlike, and Mr. Daryrumple—that's the butler, lass— told us he'd not be returnin' afore Easter, 'n likely not afore summer."

Emily hid her excitement behind a woebegone look. "Mistress'll be that unhappy."

"Nay, don't fret yourself She carina expect you to make here what's gone by wishin' it. A reg'lar dragon, is she?" The woman clucked. "Have a mug o'tea and rest your bones, then, afore you go back to face 'er."

"Thank 'ee kindly, ma'am, but I daren't. Mistress'll rap my knuckles iff n I'm not back by seven."

Amid sympathetic murmurs from the staff and a general grumble about the unreasonableness of employers, Emily bobbed another curtsey and made her way out.

Once outside the back gate, she tore off her servant's mobcap, threw it in the air and hugged herself fiercely.

He was not in London. She could begin.





Chapter 1

“Fetch a bonnet for your mother? My, what a dutiful son!"

Evan Mansfield, Earl of Cheverley, widened the swinging arc of his walking stick just enough to whack the speaker behind his ankle. Over the ensuing yelp, he replied, "Since your own mother had the good sense to expire when you were an infant, you have no idea how to care for a lady."

Grinning as his friend Brent Blakesly shot him a baleful glance, he continued, "Actually, Mama intended to collect the bonnet herself, but I wouldn't hear of it. She's not yet fully recovered from that putrid cold. There's no need for you to come, though. Why not hie on to White's, and order us wine? Charge it to my account." Evan directed a look at Brent's ankle. '"Twill ease the pain."

Brent's frown smoothed. "Feel better already. Mind you hurry. I should hate to drink all your wine before you arrive." Tipping his hat, Blakesly set off.

"I'll not be long," Evan called after him. "Madame Emilie's shop is just off Bond Street."

Brent halted in midstep. "Madame Emilie?"

When Evan nodded, his friend strode back. "On second thought, I'll accompany you. Let's be off, shall we?"

Evan raised his eyebrows. "What possible reason could you have for visiting a bonnet shop?"

"Let's just say I might find it...interesting."

As they strolled, Evan pressed him again, but Brent would vouchsafe nothing further, only shaking his head and saying Evan must see for himself.