Authors: Denise Domning
"Almost Perfect proves as engaging and satisfying as Denise Domning's Medieval romances. I hope that this will not be the last book, or the last romance, from this very talented author."
Romance Reviews Today
"Whether writing Medieval, Elizabethan, or, now, Regency England and Scotland, [Ms. Domning] will capture the reader's attention from first page to last."
---Carla Arpin, Book Reviewer
"Readers will enjoy Almost Perfect just don't play cards with Cassie."
---Harriet Klausner, Book Reviewer
First, I want to thank Lucia Macro for suggesting I try this new time period. Who knew the Regency could be so fun? I’d also like to thank Erika Tsang for her enthusiasm. It’s priceless. Mostly, I need to thank Joan Domning, Holly Thompson (aka Holly Newman) and Allison Hentges (aka Georgina Devon). Without your input this book could never have been written.
“Eliza, it’s come,” Cassandra Marston called to her sister as she shut the door on the stench and heat of London in late July, cutting off mid-word the cries of a street vendor shouting about the quality of his apples.
Her call echoed eerily in their almost empty townhouse. The last of their servants had left yesterday, giving up their positions with nothing more than Cassie’s promise to someday pay their back wages. Most of the furniture had been sold and their closets, emptied. Yesterday, she and Eliza had packed the few items they’d retained in a single trunk, which their departing footman had kindly stowed in their ancient coach for them before leaving.
As she waited for her sister’s response Cassie tore open Aunt Philana’s package. Inside was a soft leather pouch that clinked nicely when Cassie shifted it and a single square of fine card stock. She gratefully tucked the precious purse into the pocket of her lavender pelisse, then lifted out the formal invitation from Ryecroft Castle and its master. This she held out before her as Eliza came clattering down the stairs.
Eight years younger than Cassie’s five and twenty, Elizabeth Conningsby bounded off the final step and into the foyer, her golden curls bouncing and her summer bonnet swinging from her gloved fingers by its ribbons. Like Cassie, she was dressed for traveling. Unbuttoned against the heat, her dark blue pelisse flew open to reveal Eliza’s most comfortable dress, a blue-sprigged muslin decorated only with a blue ribbon along its high waistline. It was the twin to Cassie’s attire.
Smiling, Cassie showed her the invitation and the coat of arms it bore.
Eliza laughed, her smile glorious and just like Cassie’s in its lush bend. Their mother, dead these two years, had passed her beauty--golden hair, brown eyes and well-made, even features--to both her daughters.
“I cannot believe it! We are really attending an earl’s house party,” she cried in pleasure and relief. “I couldn’t bear the thought of making that long ride north without any certainty that at its end we’d be included or even welcome. By the by, I’ve been watching from the back window. The lad has just finished with the harnesses. We can leave whenever you’re ready to wake Papa.”
Sir Roland Conningsby had returned this morn at quarter past eight, roused his daughters and demanded they prepare immediately to leave London, something they hadn’t planned to do until the morrow. After making his pronouncement their father had donned his own unique traveling attire: a coachman’s dark maroon jacket, fawn breeches and brown boots; Roland considered himself a great whip and intended to serve as their coachman on their trip to Scotland, which was fine with Cassie for that meant forgoing the cost of a hired driver. After that, he’d retired to the drawing room and promptly fallen asleep, leaving the chore of readying their transport to his daughters. Hopelessly ignorant of harnesses and the like, Eliza had finally resolved the issue by begging their neighbor’s servant to do the task for them. As always, her pretty ways won her his compliance.
The drawing room door to the right of them creaked open and their father peered out at them, blinking sleepily. “What’s all the commotion?” he asked around a yawn, stepping into the entry hall, straightening his jacket before scrubbing at his eyes. The settee’s patterned fabric had imprinted on one side of his round face. What little hair he had left stood up around his head in a tangled white halo. Dark rings hung beneath his eyes.
Cassie shot Eliza an unnecessary warning look. They had both agreed it was better if Roland knew nothing of their true destination. She smiled at their sire. “Only that we have finally received a letter from my aunt just in the nick of time,” she told him.
Roland’s eyes widened. “Time!” he yelped, then ducked into the drawing room where they kept their clock or more rightly now, their mortgage holder’s clock.
He exploded back out into the foyer, his face ashen. “It’s eleven! Didn’t I tell you we had to leave before eleven?” he squawked.
“Papa,” Cassie said, speaking to him as if he were a slow child, “it hardly matters what time you might want to leave. There’s no going before the coach is ready and the lad had to finish his own chores before he could help us.”
“I could have done it! You shouldn’t have let me sleep!” Roland yelled at his eldest child.
His daughters both stared at him, shocked by his unexpected display of emotion. He had never before raised his voice to either of them.
Just then the front door knocker clanged, the deep brassy sound reverberating hollowly against the marble floor and newly bared walls of the foyer. Eliza shot Cassie a look of dismay that matched Cassie’s. Neither of them could tolerate facing yet another of their father’s endless, angry creditors.
Roland blanched. “We’re not answering that,” he whispered, then grabbed Eliza, giving her a push toward the stairs that led down to the house’s service rooms and the alleyway door. “Go!” he hissed. Eliza stumbled toward the back of the foyer then pivoted toward Cassie in confusion.
At the door the latch rattled then, with a creak of the hinges, the door groaned open.
Cassie whirled in surprise and not a little annoyance. What sort of low-life entered someone’s home without permission? She blinked in astonishment as Neville Mayne, Earl Bucksden, stepped into their foyer.
Like any good dandy he paused in the open doorway so the women might better appreciate his beauty. In his middle years Lord Bucksden was fit where Roland was fat. The earl was dressed for visiting in a long-tailed blue coat, pantaloons and a tall gray hat upon his head. Pomaded and brushed forward, wisps of black hair clung to his cheeks. His collar points were exalted, rising well above his jaw line, while his neckcloth was creased exactly so beneath his clean-shaven, dimpled chin.
The earl, smiling as if entering uninvited into homes was a common occurrence for him, closed the door behind him. Perhaps it was. Although Lord Bucksden presented himself as the handsome ideal, Cassie knew better. As a widow she was privy to all the darker gossip of the
and the earl was no paragon. One rumor said so many high-born women had come to ruination in Bucksden’s bed that the earl’s bastards would one day sit at the head of a dozen ancient families. Lord Bucksden’s skill at the card table had bankrupted many while his skill with weapons had ended the lives of three gentlemen.
“Mrs. Marston,” the earl said to Cassie, sweeping his hat from his head then fixed Eliza with an overly bold gaze. “Miss Elizabeth.”
From the corner of her eye Cassie saw her father flatten himself against the foyer wall and slither his way to the drawing room door. Coward! He’d done something and was trying to avoid the consequences. Perhaps a duel was too much to hope for?
Stewing in a resentment she ever fought to contain, Cassie took Eliza’s hand and they followed their father into the drawing room. Neither of them offered Lord Bucksden so much as a word of greeting. An interloper, even a well born one, hardly warranted a welcome.
Their drawing room was the only room in the house that still had all its furnishings. Its gentle blue walls and draperies, a buff carpet and the comfortable settee were a testimony to Lady Conningsby’s long rule over this household. The emptiness of the rest of the house testified to what had happened after her death freed her husband’s purse from her iron control, a control Cassie had failed to duplicate. Cassie had sold what she could as she tried to meet their expenses but Roland’s losses at the tables continued to mount. It had almost been a relief when her father’s club had at last stopped extending him credit, and Cassie had to finally acknowledge that neither Sir Roland Conningsby nor his daughter could cover his debts.
Roland stood with his back to the draperies that covered the tall street windows. He was toying with a button on his waistcoat, something he only did when he was feeling guilty. As his daughters entered he opened his arms, his gesture suggesting he had protection to offer. Eliza hurried to his side. Cassie stopped in front of the large Wedgwood urn displayed on a pedestal near the hearth. She knew too well their father had no succor to offer.
Lord Bucksden halted beside her, again breaching all etiquette by entering their private chamber uninvited.
“Father, why is Lord Bucksden here?” Cassie asked, ignoring the nobleman.
“Why, to collect my winnings, Mrs. Marston,” the earl replied for Roland.
Roland blanched, whitening so much that Cassie thought he might swoon. “I was in my cups, Bucksden. You can’t possibly hold me to that ridiculous wager.”
The earl cocked his head to an elegant angle. “Why should I not hold you to it, Conningsby? It was an honest wager made between two honest men. You proposed it, you gambled. You lost. Now I’ve come to collect.”
He crooked his elbow in Eliza’s direction. “Miss Elizabeth, if you would be so kind?”
Eliza gasped. Roland stepped between his youngest daughter and the earl. He thrust out his chest and spread his arms wide. “You cannot have her.”
“What have you done?” Cassie demanded of Roland.
Lord Bucksden shot her a sidelong glance. “What he did, Mrs. Marston, was game with me. My stake was three thousand pounds, an amount he gave me to understand would resolve your present financial discomfort.”
Cassie arched a brow at him. Three thousand was about a tenth of what they needed now that the house was gone, but she doubted her father knew that. “And what was my father’s stake?”
“Why, he wagered your sister as my mistress.” Bucksden smiled.
Cassie’s knees weakened in horrified disbelief. Across the room Eliza opened her mouth as if to scream. No sound came forth. She dropped her bonnet. It bounced away from her as she sank to her knees and buried her face in her hands.
“You odious man,” Cassie cried, not certain if she chided Lord Bucksden, her father or all the gamblers who had conspired to complicate her life. That list included her departed husband who, despite his sweetness, charm and religious prattle, had proved to be a closet wastrel.
“Unnecessary vitriol, Mrs. Marston,” the handsome earl retorted smoothly. “You behave as if I intend your sister harm when pleasure’s my purpose. Miss Elizabeth will have a far better life as my mistress than she can now expect as Sir Roland’s daughter.”
He smiled at the kneeling Eliza. “Sweet, beautiful creature,” he crooned. “If only you weren’t related to Sir Roland your beauty might tempt some man to overlook your impoverishment and offer for you. But no gentleman could ever tolerate a marriage that connects him to your foolish, penniless sot of a sire. The only one who’ll have you now is a tradesman’s son, but even one so low might consider long and hard before offering. Your bloodline won’t open many doors these days.”
Roland’s face whitened even further at this, his eyes tearing. Cassie wondered if it was the first time he’d been forced to confront the opinion his peers and betters held of him.
Across the room Eliza lifted her head from her hands and looked at Cassie in despair. Desperate to save her sister Cassie stepped between Lord Bucksden and the rest of the room.
“I don’t care what you and my father wagered last night my lord, you cannot have Eliza. Remove yourself from our house.”
Steel glinted the earl’s dark eyes. When Cassie didn’t move, his eyes narrowed. Cassie thought she glimpsed the deep and dangerous rage the gossips said drove him to kill rather than wound his dueling opponents. His fists closed. It was an effective threat from a man with so powerful a form. Still, she held her ground. No gentleman would ever hit a woman.
Bucksden took a step toward her, his lip curling.
The earl lifted his arm.
Cassie’s certainty and courage failed both her. She shifted to the side, only to collide with the pedestal behind her. The urn wobbled. The invitation still clutched in her hand, she grabbed in instinctive reaction for the urn, steadying it on its base with one finger on its handle.
Lord Bucksden nodded in satisfaction. “Very wise of you, Mrs. Marston. Defy me, and I’ll see to it that you and your sister wear nothing but rags for the remainder of your days.” His warning stabbed through Cassie, all the more threatening because she knew he’d done the same to others.
“I’d rather wear rags than become your mistress,” Eliza retorted, shaking off her shock to again find her heart. She rose to her feet. “I won’t do this! I won’t go with you.”
The earl chuckled and dark pleasure filled his gaze as he looked at Eliza. “Feel free to resist with all your might, my dear. I like fiery women. Breaking your spirit will be the first of the many pleasures we shall share together.”
He started toward Eliza, opening his fist to extend a now graceful hand. “Come now, it’s time we left.”
Eliza’s bravado wavered. “Cassie,” she pleaded, retreating until she stood against the windows behind her, her hands curled around the ledge.
Before Cassie knew what she intended, the urn was in her hands. She swung the heavy piece with all her might. It met the back of Lord Bucksden’s skull with a most satisfying thud then exploded into pieces. The earl groaned and toppled. As he fell his head struck the edge of the small table standing between him and their settee. The table tilted as one leg broke, cartwheeled into the air as he fell into its place then landed, tabletop down, upon his back. And there it stayed, perfectly balanced on the still nobleman’s prone form.
Silence thundered in the room, broken only by Eliza’s ragged breathing and the faint sounds of street traffic from the lane below the windows. Roland stared aghast at Cassie.
Stunned at what she’d done, Cassie dropped the shattered remains of the urn’s handle. She stared in horror at Lord Bucksden. He lay where he’d fallen, face down, his legs aspraddle, his arms at awkward angles. For all the world he looked like a marionette whose strings had been cut.
She clasped her hands. God help her! If she’d thought him cruel or dangerous before she hit him, he’d be twice as monstrous once he recovered from her assault. She waited for him to rise. One moment, then another moment passed. He didn’t shift so much as a finger.
New worry tore through Cassie. She stepped to his side, the rustle of her pelisse and gown impossibly loud as they brushed the carpet. Pushing the table from his back, she leaned down to peer into his face. Lord Bucksden’s eyes were closed and flat, his mouth slack. Beneath his head the carpet steadily darkened, stained by a slowly spreading pool of blood. She watched, but not a single loop of carpeting stirred near his nose and mouth.