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Authors: Charis Michaels

A Proper Scandal

BOOK: A Proper Scandal
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D
EDICATION

For Barbara Denise Taylor, MD, MS
A real-life heroine who seeks to heal those from whom everyone else turns away

C
ONTENTS

P
ROLOGUE

O
n April 12, 1809, Franklin “Frankie” Courtland, sixth Viscount Rainsleigh, tripped on a root in the bottom of a riverbed and drowned. He was drunk at the time, picnicking with friends on the banks of the River Wylye. According to an account later given to the magistrate, his lordship simply fell over, bumped into a fallen log, and sank.

It was there he remained—“enjoying the cool,” or so his friends believed—until he became too heavy, too slippery, and, alas, too dead to revive. But they did dislodge him, and after that, they claimed he floated to the surface, bobbed several times, and then gently glided downstream. He was later found just before sunset, face down and bloated (in life, as also in death), beached on a pebble shoal near Codford.

At the time the elder Courtland was sinking to the bottom of the river, his son and heir, Bryson, was hunched over a desk in the offices of his fledgling shipping company, waiting for the very moment his father would die. It had been an exceedingly long, progressively humiliating wait. Years long—nay,
decades
.

Luckily for Bryson, for his ships and his future, he was capable of doing more things at once than waiting, and while his father drank and debauched his way through all respectability and life, Bryson worked.

It was unthinkable for a young heir and nobleman to “work,” but Bryson was given little choice, considering the impoverished state of the Rainsleigh viscountcy. He was scarcely eleven years of age when he made his first foray into labor, and not so many years after, into private enterprise. His life in work had not ceased since. On the rare occasion that he didn't work, he studied.

With his meager earnings (he began by punting boats on the very river in which his father later drowned), he made meager investments. These investments reaped small gains—first in shares in the punting station; later in property along the water; later still in other industry up and down the river.

Bryson lived modestly, worked ceaselessly, and spared only enough to pay his way through Cambridge, bring up his brother, and see him educated him as well. Every guinea earned was reinvested. He repeated the process again and again, a little less meagerly each time 'round.

By the time the viscount's self-destructive lifestyle wrought his river- and drink-soaked end, Bryson had managed to accrue a small fortune, launch a company that built and sailed ships, and construct an elaborate plan for what he would do when his father finally cocked up his toes and died.

When at last that day came, Bryson had but one complaint: it took fifty-two hours for the constable to find him. He was a viscount for two days before anyone, including himself, even knew it.

But two days was a trifle compared to a lifetime of waiting. And on the day he learned of his inheritance—nay, the very hour—he launched his long-awaited plan.

By three o'clock on the fourth day, he'd razed the rotting, reeking east wing of the family estate in Wiltshire to the ground.

Within the week, he'd extracted his mother from the west wing and shipped her and a contingent of discreet caregivers to a villa in Spain.

Within the month, he'd sold every stick of furniture, every remaining fork and dish, every sweat-soaked toga and opium-tinged gown. He burned the drapes, burned the rugs, burned the tapestries. He delivered the half-starved horses and the fighting dogs to an agricultural college and pensioned off the remaining staff.

By the six-week mark, he'd unloaded the London townhome—sold at auction to the highest bidder—and with it, the broken-down carriage, his father's dusty arsenal, what was left of the wine stores, and all the lurid art.

It was a whirlwind evacuation—a gutting, really—and no one among polite society had ever witnessed a son or heir take such absolute control and haul away so much family or property quite so fast.

But no one among polite society was acquainted with Bryson Anders Courtland, the new Viscount Rainsleigh.

And no one understood that it was not so much an ending as it was an entirely fresh start. Once the tearing down ceased, the rebuilding could begin. New viscountcy, new money, new respect, new life.

It was an enterprise into which Bryson threw himself like no other. Unlike all others, however, he could do only so much, one man, alone. For this, he would require another. A partner. Someone with whom he could work together toward a common goal. A collaborator who emulated his precise, immaculate manner. A matriarch, discreet and pure. A paragon of correctness. A viscountess. A proper, perfect wife.

C
HAPTER
O
NE

No. 22 Henrietta Place
Mayfair, London
May 1811

“W
ill that be all, my lord?” Cecil Dunhip peered over the edge of his thick portfolio and raised his brows.

Bryson Courtland, Viscount Rainsleigh, pushed back against the soft leather of his chair and breathed a heavy, agitated sigh. “Teatime, already, Dunhip? It's only half past one.”

The secretary's swollen cheeks shot crimson, and he shook his head, his three chins keeping frantic time. “Begging your pardon, my lord. Of course, by that I did not mean to imply that
I
required—”

“Easy, Dunhip.” Rainsleigh tossed his pen to the blotter. “You'll have your tea. But I do have one thing more.” He took up his agenda and glared at the hastily scrawled last line.

Wife
, read the note.

Solve.

Marry by year's end
.

The viscount looked away. “I'll need to go about the business of getting a wife.”

Dunhip blinked and inclined his head. He raised his pen high above the parchment, ever ready. “The business of getting a . . . ”

Rainsleigh folded the agenda into the shape of a bird and sailed it into the fire. “This townhouse is complete. I'm in London now year-round. It was always the next thing.” He paused. “I'm not a randy bachelor, and I won't be seen as such. The natural next step is to find a mate, carry on as husband and wife, fill the nursery, et cetera, et cetera. Besides this charity prize, I have no reason to put it off. I need to acquire a proper viscountess and start a family.”

Dunhip stared across the desk, his mouth slightly ajar. Rainsleigh raised one eyebrow. He hadn't wasted time or energy on female distraction these last diligent years, but he was hardly a monk. Surely the man would not make him say it again.

“Very good, my lord,” agreed Dunhip, idling only a fraction more. His face was impassive as he began to scribble. What notes the man took down, the viscount couldn't guess. Rainsleigh's own strategy for wife procurement was vague and theoretical at best, and Dunhip was a confirmed bachelor who lived with his mother. What could he possibly add?

Still, they had to begin somewhere. To his credit, Dunhip shed all hint of challenge and began to pepper the viscount with questions.

Would his lordship prefer a lady from here in London, or should the whole of Britain be considered? What ages appealed to his lordship? With regard to the look of the girl, should the candidates appear olive-skinned and raven-haired, or pale and fair? Should their figures be reedy or robust? And what of the demeanor of the candidates? Bookish or social? Serious or gay?

Straightforward, sensible questions, these. Rainsleigh knew Dunhip would approach the whole thing methodically. He was just about to venture thoughtful answers when his library door swung open and crashed against the wall.

“I always announce myself,” called a voice from beyond the door. “There's a good man. Trust me,
his lordship
prefers it.”

Dunhip slapped his portfolio shut and spun toward the sound. Rainsleigh closed his eyes.
Finally
, he thought, drawing a grateful breath.
Thank God
.


Ah
, there you are!” said the voice, now attached to a man. Tall, lanky, untucked. Clothes wrinkled, boots caked in mud. A three-day growth of beard.


Beau
.” Rainsleigh leaned back in his chair, crossing his arms over his chest.

His brother whipped off his hat and spun it into a chair. “Before God. Before man. Before—oh, what the hell, Dunhip, we'll include you with the men.”

Beau Courtland strode into the room, looking around the spacious library with a low whistle. “Wasn't sure I had the correct street; then I saw
the castle
. Three-times larger than every other house in the vicinity—and I knew.”

“My lord! Apologies!” Rainsleigh's butler, Sewell, scrambled through the door behind his brother. “This fellow would not permit me to announce him. I did not realize you were—”

“Expecting him? How could I”—Rainsleigh sighed—“when I believed him to be
in
India? Don't bother, Sewell. This
fellow
is my brother, Beauregard Court—”

“Damn it, Bryson, for God's sake,
mind the name
,” Beau interrupted. “Do me this one, small favor.” He turned to the gawking butler and held out his hand. “Beau Courtland. How do you do?” Sewell stared in uncomfortable confusion.

Bryson watched him. “Do you have baggage?”

“I'm not taking a room, if that's what you mean.”

“You look like a sailor and smell like a still. I hope you'll stay long enough for a wash and shave and procure a clean set of clothes.” He nodded to the secretary. “That will be all for this morning, Dunhip.”

“Dunhip, old man,” said Beau, slapping both hands on the man's shoulders, shoving him back into his chair, “still taking down every golden utterance my brother says? Who knew your chubby fingers could write so fast? Kindly
remind my brother
that I look like a sailor because I
am
a sailor.”

Bryson narrowed his eyes. “You have no title whatsoever—none of which I am aware.” His brother did not bother to correct him, and Rainsleigh tried again. “What are you doing here?”

“India became too warm for my taste.” Beau circled an empty chair and then sprawled into it.

“Too occupied to send word?”

“I could ask the same thing of you.”

Rainsleigh sighed. “What word? I'm not a shiftless resident of the world at large. I am here, as I always am, as you clearly
knew
, considering you're slouched in my library.”

“No, you're not always in London,” countered his brother. “You're usually in Wiltshire . . . in that ancient pile of freezing rock, counting sheep and money with Dunhip, here. I disembarked three days ago, if you must know, but I only learned you were in town today. Read it in the bloody papers.”

Bryson eyed him, weighing his options. He couldn't have asked for a more opportune inroad to a conversation that was long overdue. But experience had taught him to tread lightly. His brother had been known to bolt if he said too much—if he expected too much.

“I've moved to London to be closer to the shipyard,” Bryson told him. “We'll launch a new ship next year. But perhaps that's what you read. It's a venture in which I hope you will take no small amount of interest.”

“Hmmm,” said his brother, who managed to look bored and restless at the same time. He closed his eyes.

“And”—Rainsleigh paused—“I'm in London to find a wife.”

Beau opened one eye. “I beg your pardon?”

“Yes, you heard. I intend to
pay you
to use whatever you may have gleaned in the Royal Navy to captain my new ship.”

“Not the bloody boat,” said Beau, sitting up in his chair. “The bit about a wife. Surely you're joking? How the devil will a
wife
fit into your ambition to make more money, build more boats, and prove to the world that you're not Father?”

Bryson sighed. “I see your impression of my life equals the pointlessness and lack of regard with which I view yours.”

“One thing I don't do is judge. If you want to make money and prove to the world that you're a bloody saint, that is your prerogative. It's my prerogative to heckle you from the aisle. But a
wife
? Truly? When have you ever spared time for a female?”

“Clever. As always. I suppose you won't mind if I marry and turn out a handful of heirs? You'd likely never inherit if I have a son.”

“The chief reason,” Beau said with a sigh, reclining again, “that I will be the first to congratulate the lucky miss, whoever she may be. Godspeed, Bryse. Honestly. Marry immediately and conceive a copious number of sons. The farther I am from the title, the better. God knows you'll be popular on the marriage mart. All your lovely money. The shiny new polish you've put on the title.” He made a low whistling noise.

“Yes, well, that remains to be seen,” Bryson said. “However, I won't be subjecting myself to the so-called ‘marriage mart.' Dunhip?” He turned to his secretary. “You might as well take this down, as you're still here.”

“No marriage mart?” Beau said, marveling. “This is a shock. I thought you were incapable of straying from convention. You know this is how the
authentic
aristocrats do it.”

Bryson pushed back from his desk. “I loathe that statement, and you know it. Our title is one of the oldest in England. We
are
authentic. Which is why I'll go about finding a wife any way I please.”

“Oh my God,” Beau said, “you're afraid they won't let you in. After all this time and all your money, you think they'll withhold their precious, blue-blooded daughters from your tainted fingers. You're not Father, Bryson. If you want a debutante, you should have one.”

“It's not the rejection, although I've never seen you endeavor to be received anywhere but the corner public house.” He stood. “The shipping venture is my first priority, and I haven't the time to flit about from drawing room to theatre box, passing brief moments with adolescents about whom I ultimately know very little. Proficiency at idle chatter is no proof of character. When you consider the whole business practically, as I have—as I
will—
you'll see it is not a debutante that I want.” He walked to the alcove window that overlooked the garden.

Beau drawled, “No debutante, then. Do as you like. Why I would expect anything less? You'll forgive me if I cannot get the scene out of my head: You, standing in the corner of a ballroom at five o'clock in the afternoon, sipping tepid punch and discussing needlework, while a crowd of eager seventeen-year-olds and the mercenaries they call chaperones bat their eyelashes at you. You cannot possibly think of spoiling that for me.”

“Yes, but I'm not looking for a seventeen-year-old, eyelash-batting wife. A respected family will be important, of course. It is imperative for my future children that my wife be quality.”

“Dunhip, I'd underline that twice, mate,” Beau said. “
Quality.

Bryson ignored him. “But the other hallmarks of, er, gently bred maidenhood hold no interest for me. I don't care about form or figure, or even beauty, for that matter. I don't care about wit or clever banter. Obviously, I've no need for a dowry. All I want is someone who is morally upright to a fault. Who is pure. Who can be a proper hostess, bear me healthy sons, and remain faithful to me and to our family.” He looked back at his brother.

“You're looking for the opposite of Mother.”

“Yes,” he said grimly, uncomfortable with Beau's bald-faced honesty. “I am looking for the opposite of Mother.”

Beau nodded. He rolled from his chair. Through the window, a finch lit on the stone fountain in the garden, and they watched it in silence.

When Bryson went on, his voice was low. “I know you would prefer that I speak less frankly. To be always in jest, like you. But it can never be said enough: no aspect of our years at Rossmore Court need ever be repeated, Beau. Not a single miserable moment, save that we rely upon each other.”

Beau turned to him. “I hope by that you don't mean that I, too, will be expected to marry a plain, penniless, pious wife who holds no attraction for me.”

Bryson laughed. His brother was shiftless and randy, and he drank far too much, but he was amusing. He slapped him on the back and caught his shoulder, hanging on. “No, brother,” he said. “Leave that to me. Leave that to me.”

Wiltshire, England
Fifteen years prior . . .

“L
eave it to you, should I?”

Frankie Courtland, Viscount Rainsleigh, held his son painfully by the left arm and dragged him down the hall. On Bryson's right, his cousin Kenneth pinched his shoulder with a thumb and forefinger and kneed him in the kidney. Bryson was nineteen, tall, and strong from punting boats on the river. As victims went, he wasn't an easy boy to drag from a house or stuff into a carriage. So they came for him in the dead of night and set upon him when he was fast asleep.

“Let me go,” he ground out, scrambling to find his feet. “I will not go.”

Laughter, wheezing, profanity. They hauled him down the main stairwell of Rossmore Court and through the great hall. The front door stood open, and they chucked him onto the stoop.

His father stalked him. “You
will
go.” His voice had gone breezy and light, but Bryson knew what to expect, and he braced himself. The backhand was swift, opening his lip and speckling his vision with tiny flecks of white light. Bryson reeled, and they pounced again.

“As will your cousin Kenneth, your uncle, and myself,” Lord Rainsleigh went on. “Tonight, my pious boy, you'll become a man.”

The starless night was disorienting, and they easily overtook him, fighting, one against three. A carriage stood ready in the drive, and they shoved him in and climbed in behind.

Bryson scrambled to the far bench. “You plan to forcibly carry me inside? Haul me around like last week's wash? Against my will? While people watch?”

“Be agreeable for once in your life. It'll be over before you know it, and then you'll be fighting to get back in the wench's arms instead of conspiring to stay out.”

“Ah,” Bryson scoffed, “this is for my own good, is it?”

“See for yourself.”

“As if you ever had the smallest interest in anyone's good but your own, particularly mine. You can go to hell.”

“Oh, I intend to,” said his father. “But first I will go to this brothel, as will your cousin and your uncle.
As will you.
We're
all
going. So you can cease your sanctimonious babble and prissy crying about my miserable turn as your father. It spoils everyone's fun, not to mention that it makes me drowsy.” He leaned his head back on the seat. “How tiresome your pious sneering has grown . . . all summer long . . . carrying on like lord of the manor . . . as if you're better than the rest of us.”

BOOK: A Proper Scandal
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