Authors: Heather Boyd
AN IMPROPER PROPOSAL
Distinguished Rogues, Book 6
The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.
Copyright © 2015 by Heather Boyd
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form by any electronic or mechanical means—except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews—without written permission.
First Edition: June 2015
Edited by: Kelli Collins
Cover Design by Heather Boyd
In life there are choices…
Spinster Iris Hedley was once the darling of the ton until her father lost his fortune through an illness of the mind. Reduced to living as a penniless guest while her father rots in debtors prison, she’s determined to escape unscrupulous robbers who’ve set her to spy on the ton by the only means possible—by becoming a wealthy mans mistress. Unfortunately for Iris, her proper upbringing never covered intimacy or seduction so she asks the one man she trusts for help with private lessons in the duties of a mistress.
…in love there is but one
Martin Andrews, the Earl of Louth, may have a soft spot for tiny Iris Hedley, especially after her father fled London with a horde of debtors nipping at his heels. Her request for lessons in seduction leaves him reeling and although tempted it’s an offer he must refuse for her own good. Convinced she’s headed for heartbreak, he sets out to prove that surrendering to wicked pleasure is not worth the sacrifice of her future only discover that her problems are more complicated than his own.
The Distinguished Rogues
Iris Hedley was not afraid of the world, although a series of unfortunate events had taken away everything that had once been comforting in it. At one and twenty years of age, she should have been settled into marriage like so many of her former friends, rather than left on the shelf and a secret visitor to the Marshalsea Prison for indebted gentlemen.
“Come and eat, Father,” she urged gently as she polished Alexander Hedley’s spoon so it gleamed as brightly as the poor dented thing could manage then placed it beside the smuggled repast she’d served up to him. Oh, how there were times when the memory of her former happy home life caused a lump to form in her throat, and made her miss what had been lost in recent years.
Unfortunately, as had become his habit, her father did not budge from his slump on the edge of his cot in the room he shared with two other men in the musty barracks. He’d once been a fine man, wealthy, possessed of great wit and intelligence, courted by those in society who valued such things highly. Now he stared off into space quite often, absorbed in his own thoughts and lost in his memories of the past. The change had begun prior to his imprisonment and she feared for him. Her father had not taken his confinement well, but she supposed few independent gentlemen did. He was not in his right mind. He hadn’t been himself in a long time.
He grumbled, “Goose again?”
Cold goose breast and turnip soup was a luxury in this place, but Iris didn’t dare remind him of his situation. She was grateful Lady Heathcote’s cook set aside this meal every day, but she was always aware she spent someone else’s coin to care for her father. Pointing out that fact only added to his distress. “Yes, Papa. Come and sit down now so I might share it with you.”
As hoped, her father brightened at the news she would share the meal with him and perched on the stool beside the makeshift table. She handed him the spoon so he could start on his soup. “I cannot stay long today. Lady Heathcote has given me a list of errands to run on her behalf before tonight’s entertainment.”
Her father stared at the spoon a moment then snatched up the bowl of cooled soup and drank from it directly. He shuddered, wiped his mouth with the napkin and then glanced sidelong at her plate, where a single slice of goose rested. “Lady Heathcote has servants to do errands,” he grumbled. “And you should be resting so you are prepared for the evening.”
“I don’t mind helping her. Running errands to the dressmaker gives me something to do with my days, and in a small way makes up for the burden of providing me with food and lodgings. I am indebted to her.” Esme, a popular widow of independent fortune, had taken her in before her father had fled the country and his debts. She didn’t like to imagine what would have happened to her without Esme.
At first, her father had remained on the continent to assess his true situation, leaving Iris in Esme’s temporary care with a promise to return soon. While away, the scale of his losses must have preyed on his mind and he’d returned much sooner than expected, only to surrender himself to his debtors. He’d entered the Marshalsea willingly, although few knew that small detail, and she planned to keep it that way. The tally of losses had steadily risen against him until Iris had feared he might never be free. Esme insisted they conceal his location for the sake of her reputation, but it was difficult to allow others to believe her father had abandoned her for a life abroad.
“A woman should have a home of her own, a child to bounce on her knee and a respectable situation.” Her father sighed and looked about them mournfully. “This is not the life I wanted for you.”
What he’d wanted was for Iris to marry a viscount, have a home in the heart of Mayfair, and a dozen grandchildren perched on his lap as he sipped whiskey in a library. Unfortunately, a life of that nature would be forever denied them both. Her father was ruined good and proper and Iris, despite all Esme had done, had fallen victim to greedy, unscrupulous men.
She hugged him close. “We will win through Papa, never doubt it.”
Despite her words, Iris did find it hard to remain optimistic, especially here in this dreary place. Perhaps it was better that her father often could not remember he was entirely at fault for the decisions he’d made that had brought him to this damp and undesirable place.
As her father finished his meal, she began to repack her basket and then prepare herself to face the turnkey. “The turnkey asked for the name of your governess this morning. I think he wishes his daughter had half your grace.”
“He’s only being polite, papa.” The turnkey’s real interest was blackmail. He did have a daughter, almost of an age to marry, but Iris was due to hand over funds to him to ensure her father was taken care of in her absence. More of Esme’s funds. Iris bit her lip as worry filled her. Esme did too much already and an alternative source of funds to pay for her father’s upkeep had to be found. One day soon, she must attempt to repay Esme for her many kindnesses.
Unfortunately, there were few honorable choices for a woman who needed to improve her life. Marriage, of course, was the preferred option for a young woman to elevate herself in society. Snaring well-to-do and titled gentlemen had been the ultimate goal for her friends. With her substantial dowry, Iris had her pick of anyone and had chosen a young man with a modest title of viscount because she’d liked him best of all her suitors. Lord Grindlewood had not been a wealthy man and her dowry would have assured them a comfortable life.
However, before they could be wed, her father had lost his fortune, including her dowry. Iris had felt honor bound to release Lord Grindlewood from their engagement.
Her chances of a second match had perished with her dowry and that left her with only unpalatable choices.
“I intend to speak to Fitzhugh on the way out to ask after his wife and daughters,” she lied. “They’ve not been in the best of health of late.”
“If you must single him out for conversation be sure to have a care for your reputation and stand in the open at a respectable distance,” her father warned unnecessarily. “I don’t want anyone to misconstrue your interest in his family as an attempt to curry pecuniary dispensation on my behalf.”
Through her daily visits to the Marshalsea, a hoard of scandalous options for lining ones pockets had presented themselves. Thievery was rife around the Marshalsea and she’d learned to carry little of value in her hands. Prostitutes parading their wares in the yard in the hope of customers were impossible to ignore, and while she’d deflected any untoward advances since her father’s fall and retained her innocence, such a final profession might be the only means of securing a large regular income. Men were said to pay their mistresses handsomely if they were kept well satisfied. Fitzhugh had already expressed an interest in bedding her.
She shuddered and pressed her gloves to her cold cheeks. “I will keep our conversation as brief as possible,” she assured him. She would never give herself to Fitzhugh but she might have no choice but to become a mistress to someone else. “I must be going.”
Her father stared out the tiny window of the barracks room with no idea of her inner turmoil; no idea Iris was contemplating a life beyond good society in the demimonde, wherever a mistress plied her trade. His already battered pride would never bear the disappointment, so she would tell him nothing until she had settled her mind on the subject.
He caught her arm as she stood. “You will be careful out there.”
“Of course, Father.” Truth to tell, it was more dangerous in the Marshalsea for a woman in her situation. The turnkey, Mr. Fitzhugh, liked to remind her not to give herself airs above anyone else. Thieves, even thieves’ accomplices, had to adhere to the pecking order. She was at the very bottom of the hierarchy and utterly expendable. The turnkey took his cut but the real wealth went elsewhere. Fitzhugh’s solicitous behavior and kind inquiries masked his real intent, as he never failed to remind her who was really in charge of her life.
She kissed the top of her father’s gray head. “I am always careful.”
He stood too and placed her hand on his arm. He led her down the rickety wooden staircase to the courtyard as if they were arriving at a ball. On the way to the main gate, he nodded to fellow captives but kept a distance from them. Mr. Fitzhugh, surrounded by other prisoners, lounged against the gate following their progress with hooded eyes. He swung his keys, a tactic to remind everyone he was in charge. She hated him but didn’t dare show how much. As she drew closer, she buried her loathing. If not for her father’s need, she would tell him exactly what she thought of him and his so-called friends.
However, the men worth befriending in the Marshalsea, the most influential, were the turnkey, and those on the prisoner committee. Iris didn’t dare slight them, no matter how dark or dangerous her thoughts became toward them. She smiled instead at them all, never singling out one over the other for attention. “Good morning, gentlemen.”
Thankfully, the men gathered around Fitzhugh murmured a greeting in response but continued their own conversation and did not impede their progress.
At the gate, her father stopped. “I’ll be thinking of you,” he whispered, casting an anxious eye at the gate and back at the prison yard.
Mr. Fitzhugh strolled toward her father and placed a restraining hand on his shoulder. Her father was not allowed to leave the Marshalsea until his debts were paid in full. Iris, as a visitor, was free to come and go between the hours of eight in the morning and ten in the evening as often as she liked. Father would be drawn away, likely back to the room he slept in.
She hugged her father quickly. “I will be back before you know it.”
Fitzhugh smiled, as a cat would when it hungered for a bowl of cream. “You’re looking remarkably pretty today, Miss Hedley.”
“Thank you. How is your wife faring of late?”
“Much improved.” He strolled to the gate and held the latch, his ring of keys clanking against his thigh. “Does it look like rain today, Miss Hedley?”
A chill swept her at the question. “It won’t rain.”
“And the rest of the weather report?”
She glanced at her father anxiously, who stood a short distance back from the gate with his hands clasped together. “Lord Hazelton’s library on Conduit Street tonight. Behind the portrait of his children,” she whispered. “The safe is there.”