A Lady of Esteem
Miss Amelia Stalwood may live in London at her absent guardian's townhouse, but she's never actually met any nobility, and instead of aristocrats, her closest friends are servants.
Quite by happenstance, she's introduced to the Hawthorne family and their close family friend, Anthony, the reformed Marquis of Raebourne . They welcome her into their world, but just as she's beginning to gain some confidence and even suspect she may have caught Anthony's eye, she's blindsided by an unexpected twist in her situation accompanied by nasty rumors.
Will she lose her reputation when the world that has only just accepted her turns its back on her, or will she rest in the support of the friends who've become like family and the man who's shared his faith and captured her heart?
Read an Excerpt
Suffolk, England, 1803
Amelia Stalwood winced as the tower of fabric-wrapped wooden blocks crashed to the floor. She looked to the housekeeper, tears welling in her young eyes. "I'm sorry, Mrs. Bummel."
"Don't worry, love." The woman put her quill on the desk before leaning over to kiss Amelia's head. "That's why I put the rug in here."
The man's voice echoed up the stairs into the room Amelia and the housekeeper had turned into a combination office and playroom.
When Amelia had come to live with Lord Stanford a year ago on the very distant connection that Amelia's grandmother's sister's niece had been married to the viscount's deceased brother, he'd turned her over to the housekeeper and had very little to do with her since. He passed all his requests for her to be quieter through the butler.
That he actually wanted to speak to her was somewhat thrilling.
Amelia jumped up with a grin and ran to the stairs as fast as her spindly eleven-year-old legs could go. He was at the bottom of the stairs, looking confused as he turned circles in the hall, unsure of where she would appear.
She scampered down the stairs, with Mrs. Bummel following at a more sedate pace.
"Yes, my lord?" Amelia struggled to keep the breathlessness from her voice. The viscount looked the same as when she had met him a year ago, with a too-large coat, unkempt hair, and large spectacles taking up half his face.
"Ah, Amelia, yes. Good news! I've hired you a governess."
"A governess?" Mrs. Bummel placed a hand on Amelia's shoulder. "I must say it's about time, my lord."
"Indeed, indeed. She's taking care of packing and whatnot. Should be in London by the time you get there. How long will you need to pack? Two days?" Lord Stanford's eyes glazed over as he stared into the distance. "I wonder how long it takes to get to London. Haven't been myself since I was a boy. Where's my map?"
He started to turn toward his study until Mrs. Bummel cleared her throat. "London, my lord?"
Amelia shrank into Mrs. Bummel's skirts, while the housekeeper's arm tightened around her small shoulders.
"Yes, yes, London. Perfect place for a child--don't you think? I've got an empty house in town, you know. Lors of noise, and people, and noise. Nothing like here. It's nearly barbaric to keep the girl here." His face screwed up in thought again. For the first time his unkempt appearance frightened rather than amused. "What did barbarians do with their children? I mean, they were barbarians. Do I have a book on barbarians?"
He wandered off muttering about what kind of person would be able to write a book about barbarians.
This time, Mrs. Bummel let him go, even as she pulled Amelia closer, whispering a prayer into the little girl's hair.
Amelia wrapped Mrs. Bummel's apron strings around her fingers, mourning the plans they'd made to walk through the woods this weekend in search of wild berries. As Mrs. Bummel's rough woolen skirts scraped the tears from Amelia's cheeks, she vowed to never make plans again.
The Lord had picked a horrible time to remind Miss Amelia Stalwood that she should have been a bit more grateful that everyone overlooked her very existence. She would have given anything for a bit of that invisibility now. But no, she had this man’s complete and total attention.
Tumbling off a rolling library ladder into a man’s arms was a difficult thing to ignore, after all.
Amelia tilted her head back, easing open one eye to look at her rescuer. His face looked strange upside down. The lips were the wrong shape. And entirely too close.
Her other eye snapped open as she met his curious gaze. She’d never seen eyes so blue, didn’t even know the shade existed.
“Oh my.” Had she spoken the words or had her lips simply shaped a puff of air?
A single dark brown eyebrow lifted along with the right corner of his lips. “Oh my, indeed.”
Her face pressed against a hard shoulder covered in dark green wool, limiting her view beyond the snow white cravat. High cheekbones set off the brilliant blue eyes and impeccable hair.
“Thank you for your assistance.” She looked up at the dark paneled ceiling. “I believe you can put me down now.”
“Actually, I can’t.”
Amelia’s gaze darted back to his face, then followed to where his eyes were pointing. Her feet and skirts were tangled in the rungs of the library ladder, exposing her boots and ankles—proof that impulsiveness led to folly.
She couldn’t even do someone a good turn without it ending in catastrophe. Visiting her friend Emma had seemed like such a good idea this morning. So did volunteering to help the ill maid with her chores, despite the fact that Amelia didn’t know the first thing about being a servant.
“Not that I mind,” the man continued.
She grasped the edge of the ladder and, with the man’s assistance, heaved herself back into a standing position. After regaining her footing and straightening her skirt, she braved another look at her unexpected companion.
He was tall. She could have run her fingers through his thick waves of chestnut brown hair without having to stretch. Not that she would. But she could think about it.
The dark coat topped a pair of tan breeches and well-used but expensive riding boots. A patch of white on his shoulder drew her attention. Was that her cleaning rag? Horror filled her as she saw the small streaks of grey on his shoulder made from the dust she’d been clearing from the massive amount of bookshelves.
“May I assist you down?”
“No, I rather think I can manage. Thank you.” Given the flock of magpies making a home in her midsection, the words came out surprisingly steady.
She descended the ladder, plucking the cleaning cloth from his shoulder as she went. A puff of dust drifted into the air.
Her backward momentum continued until she’d crossed the room and put her back to the bookcase she’d recently been cleaning. That put two tufted leather chairs and a tea table between her and the man.
And the man between her and the door. Not the smartest maneuvering she could have done.
He exuded casual confidence, with one shoulder leaned against the bookshelf and one booted foot propped on the bottom rung of the now vacant ladder.
How had he gotten in? A swarm of servants covered the house, preparing for the owner to return in three days, ending his two-year hiatus from London. A man would have to be very skilled to avoid them all.
Or know the house very well.
Panic unfurled in her toes and worked its way to her throat as the man’s identity became obvious.
She was in a room alone with the notorious Raebourne Rake. Reputations had been ruined for less. Amelia needed her reputation, or rather her utter lack of one. Her lack of scandal was the only asset she could truly claim if she found herself searching for work after her next birthday.
She wove the dust rag through her fingers, twisting until the rough fabric cut into her skin. “Lord Raebourne, I presume.”
He inclined his head in a mock bow. “You seem to have the advantage.”
Good manners opened her mouth to answer his unspoken question. Good sense snapped her teeth shut. He did not need to know who she was.
Pushing away from the bookcase, he ran a finger along one still dusty edge. “Thank you for cleaning my bookcase. I apologize for interrupting your endeavors.”
“If you require this room, I can finish the job at a more convenient time.” The lie burned her throat, but what else could she do? Besides it was only a partial lie. Someone would return to finish the room. Someone actually employed here.
“Can you? How interesting.” He paced forward to lean on one of the tufted leather chairs. “When do you intend to do that?”
Never. “At your convenience, my lord. It is your house after all.”
He nodded. “And you spend a great deal of time in it?”
“I’m usually in the kitchens, my lord.” Amelia restrained a wince at yet another partial lie. Despite her many visits to the house, this was the first time she’d ever ventured farther in than the kitchen. She doubted he’d be interested that the reason she’d done so this time was because her friend Emma was sick. The man’s housekeeper was a dreadful viper who threatened to fire Emma for neglecting her chores, unconcerned about the maid’s inability to move five feet from the chamber pot.
“I’m curious,” he said, once more inspecting the bookcases. “I know I’ve been away a while, but I don’t recall the servants of this house dressing in well-crafted muslin gowns before.”
Amelia’s free hand clutched at the front of her gown, crushing the fine muslin between her fingers. It was simply cut and the drabbest of browns, but he was correct about the craftsmanship.
“You are known as a rather generous employer.” Amelia pinched herself. He was known as a cad. A cad who’d left town two years prior to avoid a duel with a young lady’s angry brother.
His eyebrows lifted even as his mouth turned down. For a moment the look of playful curiosity succumbed to a dark cloud of resignation. “I think we both know my reputation points in another direction.”
Amelia blinked, and the sophisticated man of rumor returned, wielding his social power as casually as a riding crop. His face relaxed until it was poised on the edge of a smug grin. “Why don’t we start with you telling me who you are, since I don’t believe for a moment that you work for me.”
Why, oh why, did the first nobleman she’d encountered in a decade have to be the devastatingly good-looking and debonair Marquis of Raebourne? Life would have been ever so much easier if she could have started with a nice baronet.
A homely viscount would have worked as well. Preferably one who was easily distracted, like her absent-minded guardian. He walked around his Sussex estate with unkempt hair, a too-large coat, and three pairs of spectacles tucked in various places on his person because he kept forgetting where he put them. It all testified to the somewhat endearing absent-mindedness and total harmlessness of her guardian.
The marquis did not strike her as absent-minded and he certainly wasn’t harmless.
He rounded the furniture and advanced toward her. “I believe, under the circumstances, we can introduce ourselves. As you have surmised I am Anthony Pendleton, Marquis of Raebourne.”
He bowed and looked at her expectantly. “And you are . . . ?”
“Not supposed to be here.” The words spilled from Amelia’s mouth before she could catch them.
The dark eyebrows climbed toward his hairline. His lips twitched as if they wanted to curve but he wouldn’t let them. “Do tell.”
She had to tell him something, and it had to be true. As a liar, she was abysmal. Most days she was happy to claim such a failure. “I don’t work for you. Not really. I was . . . visiting. And Mrs. Banks required that this room be cleaned today.”
Dear Lord, please don’t let Mrs. Banks find out I’ve done any of Emma’s cleaning. If the housekeeper found out . . . “Please don’t tell her I was here.”
His eyes locked with hers. His steady gaze became too much, and she looked down, stunned to discover she’d moved forward during her plea.
Amelia’s shoulders slumped in relief. As long as Mrs. Banks never knew Amelia had been here, Emma’s job should be safe.
“I can’t,” the marquis continued. “You haven’t told me who you are.”
She intended to keep it that way. “God, help me,” she whispered.
Hurried footsteps sounded down the hall, breaking Amelia’s trance. Both she and the marquis turned toward the door. No, not like that! She couldn’t gain her escape at someone else’s expense.
Amelia ran along the edge of the room, her shoulder grazing the bookcase.
She collided with the tall, breathless maid running into the room.
Jane grabbed Amelia by the shoulders to keep both of them from falling. “Cook told me about Emma! She’ll be in the suds if Mrs. Banks finds out you’ve gone past the kitchens to do her cleaning.”
All efforts to shove the woman out the door failed. The maid was lost in her emotional rant. “You shouldn’t be working. You’re Quality, Miss Amelia!”
Amelia darted a look at the marquis, who wasn’t missing a moment of the exchange. Jane turned as well. Her mouth dropped open.
Shivers skittered up Amelia’s back and her stomach, twisted like Cook’s kneaded bread dough. What if the marquis blamed Jane for Amelia’s trespass?
She had to get Jane out of there. She needed a distraction or the marquis could stop them before they reached the back stairs.
More out of alarm than inspiration, she flung the cloth she’d been using on the bookcases toward his head.
The marquis snatched the fabric as it connected with his nose. A puff of dust settled in his hair as one corner of the cloth slapped against his forehead. The stunned look on his face was the last thing Amelia saw before she shoved Jane down the corridor.
They half slid, half ran down the back stairs. The hollow echo of their feet on the bare wooden treads mirrored the pounding in Amelia’s chest. A swift glance over her shoulder revealed they were not being followed. A relief to be certain, but not enough of one to calm her frantic flight.
They stumbled into the kitchen, clutching each other to keep from falling. Momentum from their mad dash down the stairs sent them careening across the floor with little balance and even less grace. Cook shrieked and dropped a bowl of flour.
“Oh, I’m sorry!” Amelia searched for a rag to help clean up the mess.
“Miss Amelia!” Jane pulled on her companion’s arm. “He could be on his way down here!”
Words failed as the sound of footfalls reverberated in the servant stairwell. They sounded too light to belong to the marquis, but Amelia wasn’t going to wait around to find out.