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Kissing a Scoundrel

Regency Historical Romance Story

Author: Geneva Varghese


© Copyright 2016 by Geneva Varghese

All rights reserved.

In no way is it legal to reproduce, duplicate, or transmit any part of this document in either electronic means or in printed format. Recording of this publication is strictly prohibited and any storage of this document is not allowed unless with written permission from the publisher. All rights reserved.Respective authors own all copyrights not held by the publisher.


This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to any person,

living or dead, is purely coincidental.


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Table of Contents




Kissing a Scoundrel

Description

Emily Crawford, a lady of means with a nerve ridden nature, never believed her father's business would be hers. She had assumed that as an only child to the late Lord Crawford the family estate would. When both are willed to Owen Harding, her father's younger business partner and well known scamp, Emily believes that her only chance at comfort or happiness is to achieve an acceptable marriage.

How will she do that when her father's last words have also stipulated that Mister Harding, an adamant bachelor, will be joining her for the entirety of the social season? Will her nervous tendencies give away her anxious nature? Will she be able to ignore what he makes her feel?


Chapter 1

A woman born to a particular rank, or status, is expected to take news, no matter how dissatisfactory, with a demure nod, or perhaps a fashionable turning of the head, and nothing else. The young Lady Crawford, fully aware of what was expected, attempted to do just this, but found that her hands would not quite cooperate. Nerves had always been her undoing.

Emily was not sure that she could handle this. Between her father's sudden death and the funeral that followed, everything was changing far too quickly for her to handle. She felt a familiar frightened tickling at the back of her throat.

Her father's study was suddenly too small. A strange occurrence as she had always thought it a well-appointed room, full of life and knowledge. It had also been her private sanctum when society had been too much for her, or when the bounds of politeness strained. She had always been able to find a certain comfort in the written word; the crackling of well-loved paper, and the scent of dry ink. In this moment, however, it was an inescapable prison.

“Miss Crawford, are you quite alright?” the sound of the solicitor's voice sounded very far off.

No, no this would never do. It was exactly this sort of behavior that had seen her through three seasons without even a whisper of a marriage proposal. She cleared her throat, and swallowed the fretting.

“Forgive me, Mister Quinn, but I am afraid that I do not entirely understand.” The shake of the tea cup was barely discernible to the small gathering, but to Emily Crawford it may well have been a Chinese gong. She clutched it harder. At least no one would see the white of her knuckles through the black lace gloves.

Mister Quinn, the solicitor, was in possession of truly prodigious jowls, which were only a shade lighter than the burgundy of his waistcoat, trembled with admirably contained frustration as he carefully folded the last will and testament of the late Lord Albert Crawford.

The crackling of the paper did nothing to soften his tone when he explained, “I believe it is all very plain, Miss Crawford, very plain indeed. The properties of your father, including all of those that were part of his business, and the private residences, go in their entirety to Mister Owen Harding.”

Even hearing it a second time, it struck like a blow. Her mother, who had been much loved by her father, had passed of an infection when Emily was still in swaddling-clothes. When it became clear that Emily suffered from the same delicate constitution, and tightly strung nature as her mother, her father had seen to it that she was well taken care of. He would not have done this. He would never have left her with nothing. Emily could not bring herself to believe it.

She barely kept her voice level as she asked, “Am I to understand that this includes my family estate as well as the London residence?”

Mister Quinn barely looked up as he placed several folded papers into his satchel, a worn thing that had been tattered and stained with use. Clearly he thought the matter settled. “Were they part of your father's holdings?”

“I...well...yes,” she managed. The shaking of her teacup was louder. A few droplets crashed over the brim and puddled on the elegantly painted saucer. Her chest constricted with the all too familiar rising of her nerves. “But surely this addendum that you spoke of...”

“Miss Crawford.” He fixed her with a patronizing smile. “I realize that your father's death was most unexpected. He was, I believe, very healthy for a man of his years. And I understand that this sudden shift in your own life is hard to reconcile, but I am not sure that I can be any clearer. By the decree of these papers, you will receive a very handsome stipend for living expenses during the course of this upcoming social season, and when you are married you shall receive a generous dowry as well. However, in order to receive either of these you must do so as the addendum states...”

Yes, she remembered that part as well. It was easily the most befuddling part of her father's will. “So long as I attend the entire season under the escort of Mister Harding?”

“Yes.” His thick lips tilted into a pleased smile, humoring her understanding. “Mister Harding you will be expected to maintain Miss Crawford through this season, with the intention of finding her a suitable husband. It was impressed upon me that Lord Crawford wished to see his daughter taken care of.”

“Naturally.” It was the first thing that the other participant of this unwanted meeting had offered. In truth it was the first thing that she had heard Owen Harding say since his eulogy, which she felt had been utterly economical in nature.

“I beg your pardon?” Emily demanded, knowing that her tone whispered with the hysterics she was fighting off. She shifted the bulk of her dark gown to better see him.

Harding was not unattractive, at least in appearance. His shoulders had the slender strength of an athletic man, and his hair curled in a charming riot around a poetically sculpted face. It was his eyes, she thought, that gave him away. For all they were a perfectly acceptable shade of blue, with a starburst of green around the iris, they were most ungentlemanly in nature. It was a gleam to them, wolfish and knowing. It was not a proper look, but Mister Harding had never cared much for proper.

There wasn't anything natural about this, and they all knew it. Tea, which had grown cool, sloshed over the edges and stained her fingertips. She could only imagine how she looked. Her ivory cheeks flushed a deep pink with her own frustration and the deep brown of her eyes, normally her best feature, rimmed with the red of her recent tears. It was not how she would have liked appear during the moment when her entire life changed, but one did not have complete control over these sorts of things. Some, she sighed inwardly, had even less control than others.

She closed her dark eyes and counted slowly to five, picturing each number carefully behind her eyelids. When she opened them she felt more settled, if no less upset. With great care she replaced the cup, and its matching saucer, upon the table, and let her gaze land upon Mister Owen Harding, her last possible hope.

“I beg your pardon,” she repeated, her tone far steadier than it had been. “You cannot possibly agree to this.”

“Why not?” His lips curled into a bemused smile.

How could he possibly smile at a time such as this? Well, she thought, if she had been informed she was willed a prosperous business and two well-appointed homes she might well have smiled.

“Mister Harding, it is no secret that you deplore polite society.”

“True enough,” he answered without any hint of shame. Owen Harding was well known as a man of low morals, who preferred drinking halls to dinner parties and brothels to galas. He, as far as she knew, had never made any apology for his deplorable behavior. Why her father had been so fond of him, Emily would never know.

“And especially parties and social gatherings,” she continued.

“That is true as well.”

His mild tone did nothing but irk her. She shook her head hard enough to set the golden ringlets beneath her mourning veil to dancing. What little comfort that her counting session had given her was evaporating quickly. “In fact, Mister Harding, I distinctly remember you telling my father that you would rather have your eyes put out by a dozen ravenous seagulls than to spend the season in London being...oh, how exactly did you put it...paraded in front of insipid matrons for their even more insipid daughters?”

His eyes nearly sparkled. He held out his hands in surrender, but continued to lounge comfortably in his seat. “One of my better musings, I think.”

“Then why do this?” To keep herself from balling her hands into fists, Emily cupped her hands in her lap, black lace on black cotton. She could not have an episode now, not here, and certainly not in front of him.

“Because.” He stood up in an elegant shifting of muscle and sinew. He reached out and chucked her under the chin in a most impolite way that set her cheeks to flaming. He turned those strange and magnificent eyes on her. “For all I hate of society, and the social season, I loved your father a great deal more.”

Emily was hard pressed to decide if there could have been an answer that would have surprised her more.


Chapter 2

As Emily had, thankfully, already been introduced to polite society three years previous she had no need to attend the ball of debutantes other than she wished to see everyone at their very best. There was nothing quite like a gala to show off one at one’s best.

Silks in every shade of pink, or blue, or yellow paraded by on the most eligible ladies in all of London. Ribbons, she noted, were quite the style; especially if formed into flattering bows.

It was her preference, due to her delicate condition, that Emily was not in the center of things. She much preferred this spot near the edge of the gathering, with the comfort of a wall at her back. It allowed her to see many, without many bothering to look at her.

Her own gown was lacking in bows, as it was two years old and of a simpler country fashion. While many women, no matter how many social seasons they had seen, often purchased several new gowns, Emily was far more frugal with her wardrobe. Besides, the simpler style suited her natural look, and the pale blue emphasized her fair coloring.

“Well,” Owen said stepped up next to her, “this is as droll as I thought it would be.”

He looked resplendent. She wished he didn't. It would make everything so much easier if the deep blue of his waistcoat, and the matching silk of his cravat didn't bring out that particular hue in his eyes. No indeed, if the cut of his suit were any less perfect she could ignore the way it clung to his form. He was, Emily was forced to admit, an excellently made man, and one of the most attractive in the room, especially now that he had her father's wealth. She noted that more than one woman was already taking notice of her chaperone.

“It surprises me. I would think, with your well known proclivities, that this would be an excellent ground for you.” Emily flicked her fan out to hide her frown. It matched her gown perfectly.

“Is that so?”

“Well of course. You have made it no secret that you greatly enjoy the company of women, and here they are on display for the amusement of every established gentleman. Perhaps that is the problem,” she said musingly. “You do not enjoy the competition.”

“Your presumptions, Miss Crawford, may have been true if I had even the slightest bit of intention to marry.”

“You...you don't plan to marry?”

“No,” he said firmly. “I don't.”

“That's the most ridiculous thing that I have ever heard. You can't possibly not wish to get married. You are an eligible bachelor, a wealthy one. Surely you wish for some genteel companionship.”

While she knew of several men who were not interested in marriage, they usually had some verifiable reason as to why. For her part, Emily wished for nothing more than a good marriage to a kind man.

“Miss Crawford, I do not think that you know me at all.”

“Oh?” she asked from behind the privacy of blue and white paper. “Would you care to enlighten me then? Because as far as I am aware, you are two steps above a rake and just below a scoundrel.”

The laugh was a surprise. His eyes crinkled at the corners and his lips formed a pleasing shape, but it was the sound that caught her attention. It was not the polite titter of tea rooms or galas. It was a wild laugh, free and unadorned. Emily couldn't quite stop her lips from curling into a smile.

“Guilty enough, Miss Crawford, but at least I don't make any pretense of myself.”

“Does pretense bother you so?”

“It's a lie,” he said flatly, guiding her away from the entry room and towards the dancing hall. There were more people here, and they turned to look when the pair of them entered. “I despise lies.”

“Why? If I may be so bold?”

“I love boldness in a woman.” He navigated them along the fringes of the dancing. “But to answer your question, my father is the reason for much of my personality flaws, but he is also the reason I detest lies. He was a grievous liar and a deplorable representation of patriarchal affection.”

“I am sorry,” she offered as gently as she could. Suddenly she understood both him and her father's kindness towards him a little better.

“Think nothing of it.” He cleared his throat, “Let us show you off, shall we? That is what we are here for, after all.”

She tried to ignore the eyes that fell on them. Emily fidgeted. Dancing was her least favorite activity at a party. Here, more than anywhere else, people were interested in everything that one did. There was the continuing worry of her hair being in the right style, or her gown being without flaw, and (most importantly) whether what she said was going to be appropriate to a potential dance partner.

No, that wasn't entirely honest. She disliked the dancing because she was never asked. Once, in her very first season, a young gentleman had been polite enough to ask her, and her worries had gotten such a hold of her that she had burst into tears rather than say 'yes'. It had been the talk of social circles for several weeks.

The memory had her fingers tightening on her fan.

“Are you alright?” Owen asked. He did not sound concerned, so much as he sounded curious.

“As well as can be expected.” It wasn't exactly a lie. She watched a particularly elegant lady in a peach gown step in a pretty circle with the ease and grace of a person of her station. Emily ignored a flair of unfeminine jealousy. “So you are a bad man, but an honest one?”

“See, now you understand.”

“No,” she said softly. “I'm not entirely sure that I do.”

“Would you like to?”

The question was so expected that she turned her eyes away from the beautiful sweeping of ladies and gentlemen across the dance floor.

Owen was looking down at her with an unexpected intensity that set her heart to racing. How had she never noticed that he had a restless curl that fell over his brow, or that his chin had a distinct dip?

“Pardon?”

“Would you like to understand me?”

She blinked twice and then breathed out slowly, her nostrils flaring unbecomingly. “I am not sure.”

“Well, that's at least honest.” He paused for just a moment before he said, “I'd like to know you.”

“Why?”

“Why not? Besides, if I am to see you well married, I might as well know you well enough to ensure the match is a good one.”

It was a fair point, so she didn't argue it. Rather she turned her gaze back to the dance floor, watching as a round of dancers bowed to one another, and cleared the floor for the next song. She glanced down at her depressingly empty dance card.

“You're attractive.”

He startled her for the second time that evening. “I-what?”

“You have the fairest coloring of any woman in the room. You, and I ask beforehand that you forgive the cliché, are like a porcelain doll, with all those blonde curls, and ivory coloring. And the blue is becoming.”

“How kind of you to notice,” she mused without humor, though she did run a hand over her skirt to smooth an unlikely wrinkle.

“The point that I am attempting to get to, Miss Crawford, is that it fascinates me that a woman so lovely as you has not been approached once so far this evening for a dance. Perhaps your father assigned me an impossible task.”

Emily ignored the barb, as she was to entrenched in her own thoughts. She wasn't going to tell him about her first dance, and that none had ever followed. He did not need the details, but she could help him to understand. “I made a fool of myself the season before last, it is unlikely anyone will approach.”

“Ah,” he said, dislodging himself from his leaning position. In a surprisingly elegant motion he bowed to her and offered his hand. “Allow me.”

“You can't be serious.”

“I promise not to make a habit of it if you'll accept.” His mouth had curved into a charming grin.

She could only assume that she went temporarily mad when she tucked her hand into his.

The murmurers followed the pair of them as he led her forward. Her heart hammered. Her stomach sank towards her toes. At the edge of the dance floor her feet refused to move.

“I...I don't know if I can do this.”

He looked into her face, his lips were already forming some brusque response when he understanding smoothed his brow. He clapped his mouth closed and gave a singular nod.

“Look at me,” he whispered. “Look only at me. There is no one and nothing else.”

He said it with such certainty that she could almost believe him. His gaze filled with an intensity that could have burned if she could touch it. His hand held hers and she could feel nothing, see nothing but him.

The music started, and he guided her away from the world.

It was not polite to stare at one's dance partner, but neither of them looked at anything else. It was as if their gazes were magnetized, drawn to one another with some invisible force. Her skin hummed every time his fingers graced her shoulder, her back, or her palm. When the steps had her facing away from him, she glanced over her shoulder and he was watching her. It was intimate in a way she had no words for; not that her mind would have formed coherent thought, much less words.

When the song ended, he guided her effortlessly away from the crowd, and into an alcove.

“What was that for?” She asked.

“A man needs a reason to ask a lovely woman to dance?”

“You do.”

He laughed, and the sound was loud enough to turn what few heads weren't already looking in their direction. “Fair enough, Miss Crawford. You are right, I had a motive.”

“Which is?”

“What does a man want more than a woman?” The mischievous twinkle was back in his visage.

“I...I am sure I don't know.”

“A woman that another man has.”

“That's ridiculous. How could you even-”

“Miss Crawford! How lovely to see you,” a voice interrupted.

She narrowed her eyes at Owen, whose grin had grown arrogant.

The new arrival was a broadly-built gentleman with a round face and a well-trimmed beard. His familiar presence was a welcomed one, even if ill timed.

“Lord Wright.” Emily's smile was enthusiastic as she bobbed is a short curtsy. “You are looking well.”

“As are you. I...well I didn't expect to see you here.”

He didn't say 'quite so soon', but Emily heard the words anyway.

“My father was not a homebody, nor shall I be.” No matter, she thought, that she didn't have a home anymore.

“A good spirit to have. I am very glad that you are here Mister Wright.” Wright glanced at Owen and his brows knit.

“Oh, forgive me,” Emily shook her head. “I don't know where my manners have gone. Hudson Wright, may I introduce the heir of my father's estate and holdings, Mister Owen Harding. Mister Owen Harding, this is Lord Hudson Wright.”

The gentlemen acknowledged each other with a bow, though Owen's wasn't particularly courteous.

“Heir?” Hudson asked, his gaze lingered on her.

“Yes.” She struggled to keep her tone light. “My father named him in his will, along with several stipulations.”

“I...stipulations?”

“Yes, well it seems that...”

“I get to marry her off,” Owen broke in. “Shall I put you down in the books then? Or would you rather continue to pretend that you aren't interested?”

“Pardon?” Lord Wright asked, clearly caught off guard.

“Ahh, pretending it is.” Owen nodded. “Fair choice. Well, her dance card is currently empty, perhaps you'd like to...”

Emily felt her cheeks go rose. Suddenly the room was far too hot and her ears felt as if they were burning. “Mister Harding, Lord Wright, if you will excuse me, I find that I am in need of air.”

“Yes,” Emily heard Lord Wright say. “Of course.”

She jerked her arm away from Owen's and whirled out of the room. She could hear the murmurers following in her wake. Her throat closed as she struggled to keep what little grace was left to her and dashed out of the gala.

The garden was far cooler and only a few guests were making use of its solitude. Emily found an empty path and took it. She didn't care where it took her, so long as it was away.

How could he say such things? And to Hudson of all people!

Hudson was an old friend. He had attended college with her cousin and spent a summer at the estate. Her cousin had spent a good deal of the time chasing parlor maids, but Hudson had spent many an afternoon with Emily. They had, she thought, grown quite fond enough of one another. It was no wild passion, but he was wealthy and intelligent and kind of heart. He knew of her nature, and had never made her feel poor for it.

“Emily?” Owen's voice called after her. “Emily, there you are.”


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