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Authors: The Troublemaker

Rexanne Becnel

BOOK: Rexanne Becnel
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This one is for
the good guys:
Phil, Harvey, Bobby,
Oscar, Glenn, René,
and Mo
.

Prologue

BOSTON
APRIL
1827

“H
E
isn’t dead!”

Marshall Byrde stared at the letter in his hand, the brittle square of parchment gone yellow in the several decades since it had been sent to his mother. The date was clear enough, London 1798, and the signature, Cameron Byrde.

Most incriminating of all, the curt message left no doubt that Marshall’s own life had been based upon a lie.

“‘I am wed now.’” He read the words out loud and they echoed across the years and miles as if the voice of the father he’d never known spoke them with his own lips. In his mother’s silent parlor he read the cruel words Cameron Byrde had written to Maureen MacDougal Byrde twenty-nine years ago. “‘I am truly wed this time and so will not be joining you in America’—”

He couldn’t read the rest, for the letter shook too violently in his hand. The man had not died. His father, whose name he had always carried with such pride, hadn’t died on board the ship to America as his mother had always maintained. He’d been alive and well—

Marsh crushed the letter in his fist. Cameron Byrde had been alive and well a year after Marsh’s own birth. Alive and well with his new wife in London, while his true wife and firstborn child had struggled alone in a strange country, half a world away.

He lurched to his feet, then abruptly sat down again, for the implications of the letter left him momentarily dazed. How could his mother have spoken so lovingly of the man all these years? So reverentially? How could she have continued to love him, a man who’d abandoned her and taken a second wife in her stead?

Then again, had his father ever truly married his mother?

He opened the crumpled pages and stared at the faded ink letters that slanted backward, just like his own. Was his mother really a Byrde? Was he?

The blood pounded in his ears, and he felt the dull headache he’d nursed all day rise throbbing once more. He’d buried his beloved mother yesterday, having arrived from Washington too late to bid her good-bye. Then last night he’d gotten quietly and desperately drunk. His mother. His only family. And he hadn’t arrived until after she was gone.

Today he’d begun the heartbreaking task of sorting through her belongings. Her clothes. Her household goods. All his now, whether he wanted them or not.

He lifted his head and let his eyes sweep the neat parlor, with its papered walls and precisely arranged furnishings. He’d built her this house just four years ago with the profits from his last boxing match. She’d deserved it and more. But when he would have set her up in a grander abode in Washington, where his construction business was now based, she’d demurred.

“Boston is my home,” she’d said. So she’d remained here, living for his visits.

A wave of guilt washed over him. She’d been waiting for his visit four days ago, a visit delayed by some problem with the new building he was constructing to house a commodities trading company. When he’d finally arrived in Boston, it was to find a black ribbon draped over the door knocker, and a burial notice tacked beneath it.

His sweet, fragile mother had died in her sleep.

“Gone to be with your father,” her friend Mrs. Sternot had tearfully told him. “Together at last, God bless their souls.”

Only Cameron Byrde had not died, at least not when his mother said he had. He could be living still.

Still reeling from the shock of his discovery, Marsh forced himself to search through the little embroidered box of letters and trinkets, the box that held the secrets of his mother’s life. Were there any other secrets she’d hidden from him in there?

He found several newspaper clippings about his own achievements: the boxing matches of his earlier career, the ribbon cuttings and other events associated with his growing construction company. There was also a tiny likeness of him, drawn by one of his mother’s employers as a gift when he was a little boy. But he found only two other letters from his father—and no marriage certificate.

It was enough to paint a clear picture of what had happened all those years ago. A sweet young woman in love with a cad. She must have found herself with child and Cameron Byrde had agreed to marry her. But it seemed the lout had soon regretted his offer and so had sent her away, on to America, with the promise that he’d soon follow.

Only he hadn’t. A hundred pounds in an American bank, and he’d washed his hands clean of any responsibility for her or their child.

And so she’d been left alone, big with child and with neither family nor friends to turn to.

Marsh ran a shaking hand through his hair. No wonder she’d lied and claimed to be a widow. She’d had to lie to him, and to everyone else. Better to be a poor but respectable widow than branded a woman of no morals. She’d worked all his life to raise and educate him. She’d cleaned, cooked, and minded other people’s children.

And she’d never remarried.

He stared at the thin stack of letters without really seeing them. She’d never remarried, though he suspected she’d been asked at least twice. Was it because she’d believed herself still married to Cameron Byrde?

It was that which raised Marsh’s fury to a dangerous pitch. Yes, she had lied to him. Yes, she had hidden secrets she should have shared with him, her only son. But damn it all, that man had ruined her life! He’d stolen her youth, broken her heart, and condemned her to a life of drudgery and toil.

Worst of all, he’d kept her from ever finding happiness with some other man.

Marsh jerked up from his chair, shaking with impotent rage and the need to punch someone in the face—anyone! That selfish son of a bitch had destroyed the life of the gentlest, sweetest woman ever to walk God’s green earth. For nearly thirty years now the bastard had gotten away with it.

But not anymore, Marsh vowed. Not anymore.

After burying his mother, he’d been at loose ends, lost and aimless, with no notion how to reorganize his life without her. But he knew now. His father had been alive twenty-nine years ago, and Marsh hoped to God he still was. For he had a score to settle with the man.

By the time he was through with Cameron Byrde, the gutless bastard would wish he had died all those years ago.

Chapter 1

MAYFAIR, LONDON
MAY
1827

S
ARAH
Palmer wanted to die. She wanted to curl up in a knot beneath the bedcovers, to hide from the dawn and the scrutiny forced by the light of a new day. Most of all, she wanted to hide from the censure of her shocked and disappointed family.

Only she could not.

Her mother would never allow it, nor would her furious brother, James. He’d been the one to intercept Lord Penley’s carriage and drag her out of it. He’d also been the one who’d challenged Lord Penley to a duel. To the death, he’d said.

To the death, for the honor of his youngest sister.

Sarah squeezed her eyes tight to remember last night’s awful scene, yet still two hot, stinging tears leaked out. Once again James had saved her from the consequences of her impulsive behavior. But he’d never before gone so far as to put his life on the line for her.

Thank God their stepfather, Justin St. Clare, Earl Acton, had been there to restrain James from following through on his threat. She owed her mother’s husband a great debt for that.

And so you repay them both by hiding your head beneath the sheets like a child?

Like a cautious fox gone to ground and now venturing back into the threatening and uncertain world, Sarah peered out from beneath the satin counterpane, then pushed it down and forced herself to sit up. She might as well face the music, dirge though it surely must be.

Sarah seldom rose before midmorning, so her brother’s townhouse seemed somewhat foreign now as she made her way down the front stairwell. She hadn’t summoned a maid to help her dress and as she reached the foyer she was glad. The two housemaids she encountered stared openly at her, though they ducked their heads when she frowned back at them.

Did everyone know what she’d done last night? Did they all know how close she’d come to utter, final ruin?

She tripped to a halt outside the breakfast room as a terrible thought struck her. Did they perhaps believe that she
had
been ruined?

She pressed her fingers to her temples in agitation. Wouldn’t she believe it if she’d heard this very same tale about any other young woman of the ton? Wouldn’t she whisper gossip behind her fan to all her bosom friends at the whirl of parties and routs and breakfasts? Her mother had often said that the suspicion of immorality condemned a young woman every bit as much as fact. Now she understood.

So it was that when she entered the breakfast room, Sarah carried a double load of guilt. Bad enough her own thoughtless behavior, but she also was ashamed for every bit of unflattering gossip she’d ever shared with her bevy of silly, fluttering friends.

James’s stern expression did nothing to ease her mind. Neither did that of her normally mild-tempered stepfather. Her mother’s presence at the table at such an early hour, however, sounded the direst note. Augusta Linden Byrde Palmer St. Clare never rose this early.

James’s gaze flicked briefly over her, then away. “Sit down, Sarah. I suggest you eat a hearty breakfast, for you have a long day ahead of you.”

Augusta cleared her throat, drawing his attention. “I will handle this, James. You and Justin did your part last night. Now it is my turn.”

Sarah’s heart stuck in her throat. But when her mother waved her toward the sideboard and its display of ham and biscuits and coddled eggs, she picked up a plate and dutifully filled it with food, none of which looked the least bit palatable. Whatever was to come, she deserved it. And she would accept her punishment with good grace, she vowed. What other choice did she have?

The three of them were arrayed along one side of the long table, so when Sarah sat on the other, she felt like a court petitioner, with the judges all frowning down on her. Her mother, clearly the chief justice, steepled her fingers beneath her chin.

“The way I see it, Sarah, we have two options.”

We? Sarah took that for a good sign.

“You may either marry Lord Penley with a special license—”

“Marry him!”

“Will you please allow me to finish?”

Sarah swallowed hard and ducked her head. “Yes, Mother.”

“Either marry the man or else leave at once for an extended visit with your sister in Scotland.”

Sarah stared down at her plate, at the little blob of raspberry jam, deep red with tiny specks of a paler color throughout. It was lowering indeed to know that the man she’d been rabid to marry just yesterday had become so utterly repugnant to her today. At the first sign of adversity he’d dissolved like sugar put to the flame. His sweet, beguiling nature had melted, then scorched, revealing the craven coward at his core.

James’s accusations about him were true. He was a fortune hunter—not that half of the ton was not. Almost everyone hoped to improve their situation through an advantageous marriage. But Lord Penley had apparently gambled his family into ruin. And if that weren’t enough, it appeared he’d also dabbled in extortion with a married woman of some consequence, one with whom he’d carried on an illicit affair.

It was that which offended her the most, the fact that he’d actually extorted money from his married lover. She shuddered with revulsion at the thought, and at her own stupidity. Why had she not been able to see beyond his handsome face and charming manner? The truth was, he’d never cared a fig for her beyond the huge dowry that came with her hand. That’s why he’d pressed her so ardently to elope with him. And she, fool that she was, had thought it all such a romantic adventure.

Thank goodness for her brother’s timely intervention.

She sighed now and raised her gaze. “I’d rather go stay with Olivia in Scotland.”

Her mother smiled. But James’s scowl grew deeper. “How swiftly your opinion of that spineless son of a bitch—”

“James!” Augusta stiffened. “I’ll not have such language in my presence!”

“Sorry, Mother. But like it or not, Penley is a spineless…” His jaw clenched and his nostrils flared with fury. “Penley is spineless,” he managed, swallowing the curse with some difficulty.

“I admit it,” Sarah put in.

“Yes. Now you admit it,” he said, giving free rein to his temper. “But when I tried to warn you away from him, would you listen then? No. Of course not.”

Sarah bowed her head and let his tirade pelt down upon her. Everything he said was true.

“And now you are ruined. If word of this aborted elopement ever gets out, no respectable man will ever offer for you.”

“She is not ruined,” Augusta protested. “Not entirely. Disgraced, perhaps. But I believe we can salvage her reputation. Come, James. Enough of this. Sarah knows she has done wrong.”

Wielding his table knife like a weapon, James attacked the ham on his plate. “Yes. She knows she’s wrong. But then, she knew she was wrong when she slipped out last month to go to Vauxhall with Mrs. Ingleside and the rest of that fast set, especially after she’d been told not to. She knew she was wrong when she attended that
bal masque
just last week with that sporting crowd from Mayfair. And she knew she was wrong when she sneaked out to that disastrous boxing match in Cheapside. She knew each and every time she was wrong—and those are only the escapades we
know
about! Yet, as always, she followed the impulse of the moment instead of considering the consequences of her actions.”

Though Sarah knew he was right, she was unable to bear another moment of his sanctimonious tirade. “And I suppose you’ve never made a mistake!” she snapped.

“I’ve made my share of mistakes. I’ll not deny that. But at least I’ve learned from mine,” he shot right back. He turned to their mother. “God knows what sort of mischief she’ll get up to in Scotland. You should have forced her to wed the first man who ever offered for her,” he added under his breath.

But Augusta only smiled again and patted his arm. “If I could force my children to wed, I assure you, James, that you would be ten years married and with just as many children. Don’t worry, Olivia will take good care of her. Between Byrde Manor and Woodford Court, Livvie will keep her little sister too busy to get into trouble. Plus, you forget how intimidating Neville can be when circumstances demand it. The two of them are certain to keep her in line.” Then she turned her crystalline blue stare on Sarah, the one that always seemed to look right down into her soul. “You do know that this is the last straw, don’t you?”

Sarah nodded. It was true. She could see that now. Her friends had all tittered at James’s objections and tempted her to greater and greater self-indulgences. And she’d gone blithely along, refusing to see any danger in her behavior. But then, she’d always chafed at the strictures of proper society. So with each season in town she’d tested those strictures further, never considering the consequences she might someday be forced to reap. Even when Mrs. Ingleside had regaled everyone with poor Miss Tinsdale’s fall from grace, Sarah had neither taken it as warning nor noticed the underlying maliciousness in the woman’s manner. She had been too busy enjoying her new friends’ amusing company.

But they were all like Lord Penley, she now saw. Selfish and grasping and mean-spirited. She was ashamed to admit how blind she’d been. And how selfish herself.

Why couldn’t she have seen it yesterday?

Now she must take leave of London at the height of the season. No more receptions. No balls or evenings at the theater. And all those beautiful gowns she’d ordered but had yet to wear…She sighed.

At least she would be with her half-sister Olivia as well as her husband Neville and their growing brood of children.

She leaned forward earnestly. “You see before you a reformed woman, Mother.” She ignored the rude noise James made. “I shall be as good as gold,” she vowed. “Olivia and Neville shall have nothing to complain about. You’ll see. Nothing at all.”

 

Only two days by ship, yet when Sarah stepped off the
Gulls Wing
at the bustling port of Berwick-upon-Tweed, she felt worlds removed from London and, indeed, all of England. The air was crisp and salty, and colder. But that gave her reason to wear her new scarlet cloak, with its sweeping cape and sable collar and cuffs. She might be relegated to the Scottish hinterlands as punishment for her outrageous behavior, but that was no reason to wear sackcloth and ashes.

“The captain has sent for a carriage,” her maid said as they stood along the rail. She was not Sarah’s regular maid, dear Betsy. James had decided that Sarah needed someone older to accompany her on her journey, someone with a firmer hand.

As if she could get into any trouble on that ship or during the one-day carriage ride to Kelso. Sarah glanced at the stern-faced matron, only barely disguising her resentment. “Yes. I know. My dear brother has arranged everything and paid the captain well to do his bidding. And you also, I imagine.” She arched her brows at the woman, even though she knew she was being unfair. But she couldn’t help it. Two days in Agnes Miller’s humorless company had her chafing at the bit. Thank goodness the woman would not be staying at Woodford Court, but rather was traveling on to Carlisle to visit her ailing mother.

The woman frowned, but otherwise ignored Sarah’s ill temper. In a matter of minutes two men carted their luggage down the gangway and piled the numerous bags onto a sturdy but outdated carriage. Oh, well, there would be no one to see or comment about her mode of transportation, Sarah decided, once the captain saw her safely inside the vehicle.

She’d turned many a head as she’d descended from the ship and walked the short distance across the wharf, but none of them the sort she desired. Sailors, dockworkers, hack drivers. There were one or two gentlemen about, properly dressed in frock coats and tall beaver hats. But not another lady in sight. She might as well be wearing flannel, fustian, and clogs, for all anybody around here would care.

Then, recognizing the pettiness of that sort of thinking, Sarah subsided against the well-worn squabs, deflated. She was beginning to sound perilously similar to Caroline Barrett, who was widely regarded as the most frivolous goose in all of London. If the woman had one conversation beyond what she was wearing and who was jealous of her, no one had yet to report on it.

And
she
was acting just that silly and shallow!

Sarah leaned forward and peered through the carriage window. “Thank you, Captain Shenker,” she called out with determined cheerfulness. “You have been very considerate of my comfort, and I appreciate your many kindnesses.”

If he was surprised by the sudden sunniness of her attitude, the good captain covered it with a broad smile. “’Twas my pleasure, miss. Indeed it was.” He tipped his hat to her. “I hope your journey to Kelso is pleasant.”

From behind the heavily laden traveling coach, Marshall Byrde heard the exchange. Only he was Marshall MacDougal again, using his mother’s maiden name, as he had on the boxing circuit.

He cocked his head. The lilting voice of the woman had drawn his interest first. But it was the reference to Kelso that made him tense to hear more. He too was heading for Kelso, for he’d heard his mother mention the place now and again.

After a fruitless search for his father in London, he was banking on the belief that if she had come from Kelso, his father might have lived there too. Perhaps the woman in this carriage might know something useful to him. Anything to speed up his frustratingly slow search for his bastard of a father.

He’d been a month at sea, ten days in London, and another several days en route to Scotland. All he’d learned for his trouble was that although his father’s letters had been posted from London, the man had not been born, wed, or buried there. Nor did he live there now, according to the detectives he’d hired.

His mother’s reticence on the subject of her life in her homeland had added nothing to his knowledge of the man. All he knew was that Maureen MacDougal had loved Cameron Byrde—and that he had not loved her in return.

So he’d decided to restart his search on his mother’s side of the family. Only this time he meant to be smarter. This time he would infiltrate society by wearing the mantle of a gentleman and conspicuously flaunt his wealth. That’s why he was in Berwick, purchasing a smart vehicle, with a showy team of horses, and a spirited saddle mount as well. He would infiltrate Kelso’s society while his new batman fit in with the servant classes. For he was certain the answer to his question lay here, in Lowland Scotland.

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