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Authors: Rhonda Woodward

A Hint of Scandal

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INTERMIX

InterMix Books are published by The Berkley Publishing Group,

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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party Web sites or their content.

A HINT OF SCANDAL

A Signet Regency Romance

An InterMix Book / published by arrangement with the author

PUBLISHING HISTORY

Signet edition / May 2003

InterMix eBook edition / March 2012

Copyright © 2003 by Rhonda Woodward.

Excerpt from
The Wagered Heart
copyright © by Rhonda Woodward.

All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions.

For information, address: The Berkley Publishing Group,

a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.,

375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.

ISBN: 978-1-101-56842-2

INTERMIX and the “IM” design are trademarks of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

SIGNET LOGO REGISTERED TRADEMARK—MARCA REGISTRADA

To William, for obvious reasons

Contents

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-one

Chapter Twenty-two

Chapter Twenty-three

Chapter Twenty-four

Chapter Twenty-five

Epilogue

Special Excerpt

About the Author

Chapter One

1818

S
eated in a threadbare chair near the fireplace, the tall man pulled a gold timepiece from his pocket for the third time in the last twenty minutes.

It was well past two o’clock in the morning, he noted, his jaw tightening with worry and irritation. Replacing the watch, he turned to look over his shoulder, almost willing there to be a sign of Johnny, his groom. Again, he was disappointed.

He continued to scan the public room of the shabby little posting inn where he’d been cooling his spurs for several hours. Though he was impatient to leave this dank place, he and Johnny had felt themselves lucky to happen upon it earlier that evening. The Blue Boar, despite its shabbiness, had at least been shelter from the raging storm that still whirled outside.

The tall man’s piercing gray eyes went to the proprietor, the common room’s only other occupant. As if he had been waiting for some sign from his guest, the rotund little man hurried over, hastily wiping his hands on the grimy apron wrapped around his waist.

“Yes, guv’nor? What else can I be doing for ye?” the innkeeper asked in his most solicitous tone. And it was no wonder, for he was still reeling from the coin he’d already received from the imposing man.

“Yes, good man, locate my groom and send him to me.”

Bobbing his head, the innkeeper turned to do his guest’s bidding just as the thick wooden door opened and a slim young man entered, rain dripping from his tricornered hat.

“Ah, there you are, Johnny,” said the man, rising to his full height as his drenched young groom approached. “I trust the horses are ready. We must be off.” His tone brooked no tolerance for any more delays.

With impressive agility for one so round, the inn’s proprietor darted to the coatrack and quickly brought over the imposing man’s belongings. Without acknowledging the others in his presence, the man pulled on his black beaver hat, split-tail coat, and calfskin gloves with spare, graceful movements.

“Yes, your grace. I’m sorry for the delay,” the young groom said quickly, wiping his wet face with a red handkerchief. “Zeus was none too pleased to be reshod. This weather has him a bit spooked.”

Nodding his response, the impatient traveler quickly strode past the two others, tossing a gold coin on the counter with one fluid motion before exiting the posting house with long strides.

He stopped a moment on the stoop to allow his eyes to adjust to the darkness that suddenly engulfed him. He was keenly aware of a growing sense of anxiousness to reach his destination.

The innkeeper, his eyes bulging at the weight of the gold coin in his hand, turned to the tall man’s groom. “Who be your master, boy?”

Heading toward the door, Johnny turned and looked over his shoulder. With a grin and an obvious note of pride in his voice, he said, “His grace, Alexander Arthur Henry George, Duke of Westlake.” Johnny shut the door behind him, leaving the proprietor with his mouth agape.

Johnny followed his master into the courtyard and trotted over to where the horses stood tethered to the hitching post. “At least the rain has slowed a bit, your grace,” Johnny said, squinting up at the night sky. He hoped he did not sound as if he were complaining, for indeed, he felt it was a great honor and privilege to accompany his master anywhere.

“Yes, the rain has almost stopped and the full moon is out. We shall now be able to find our way with more ease,” the duke said with satisfaction as he walked over to his horse.

Johnny saw the quick flash of the duke’s smile as he helped his master mount the large black stallion.

Once Johnny was on his horse, the two men left The Blue Boar’s courtyard and led their horses through the darkness onto the High Road, which went north.

“We are less than two hours from Tilbourne, possibly closer to an hour now that the weather has cleared and the horses are rested,” the duke said to Johnny as the younger man’s horse trotted next to Zeus.

“You are brave to come with me on such a night.” The duke’s tone held obvious praise for his young groom.

Johnny shifted shyly in his saddle. “We would not want your grace to travel such a long way alone.”

The duke spurred Zeus into a light canter and allowed a gently amused smile to touch his lips at Johnny’s use of the royal
we.

Soon the smile faded as they trotted along the deserted country road, with only the sound of the horses’ hooves clopping on the road in the moon-drenched darkness. The duke thanked providence, something he rarely did, for the meager brightness of the moon. Without it they would be completely unable to avoid the ruts and puddles that riddled the road. As things stood, he assessed that they should be able to make up some lost time.

Westlake allowed his thoughts to return to earlier that day, and the events that had brought him to this lonely road.

The party taking place at Autley had been merry, despite the harshness of the late-February weather. His guests were an assemblage of society’s most toplofty members. They included his mother, the Dowager Duchess of Westlake, and his two younger sisters, Alice, Lady Edgeton, and Louisa, who was engaged to the young Duke of Malverton. There were also various other family friends and a number of what the
ton
called the “Westlake Set.”

Cards, conversation, and reading had been the preferred pursuits during the last few days. The duke rather enjoyed
playing host, especially since his friends, the Duke and Duchess of Severly and Major Rotham and his wife, the Duchess of Harbrooke, had accepted his invitation.

But this particular evening a few of the ladies, led by the high-spirited Louisa, had decided that nothing would do but dancing.

So after charging the servants to roll up the carpets in the main salon, the dowager and Alice had been cajoled into playing the piano. There was much laughter and teasing amongst the group as Louisa tried to teach them all the steps of a new country reel.

While the younger people danced, Westlake had been standing in front of the massive fireplace with a few of his friends, wagering on which of the royal dukes would be the first to beget an heir to the throne. Since the sudden death of Princess Charlotte some months ago, and since the regent would not, in all likelihood, father another child, it was left to the regent’s brothers to provide an heir.

“I think it is dashed ironic that among the Dukes of Kent, Clarence, and Cambridge there are likely two dozen by-blows and not one of them a legitimate candidate for the throne,” Sir Edward Field had laughingly stated to the other gentlemen, who agreed with him.

After catching a significant look from his mother, Westlake recalled his duties and excused himself from his friends to circulate among his other guests.

BOOK: A Hint of Scandal
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