How to Ruin Your Reputation in 10 Days
Historical Romance Novel
Ladies of Passion: Book 2
In 1814 London, England, a lady is defined as a demure, delicate flower. Miss Francine Annesley is not that lady. If men were like plants, she would have a garden of admirers to choose from instead of the thorn in her side since childhood, Julian Beckwith. But she would make an even worse nun than she does a lady, which will be her fate if she can’t dig up a husband before the Season ends. However, Julian is not an option.
With only ten short days left in the Season, Francine doesn’t have time to waste on petty squabbles or knee-weakening kisses, even if Julian’s offer to fulfill her every wish rouses her curiosity. It seems men are more complicated than plants. Too bad love bloomed at the most inconvenient of times…
Behind the book
Ten days until the Season’s end.
“Those freckles. What an unfortunate blemish.”
I gritted my teeth. Outrage quickened the movement of my hand vigorously fanning my face to ward away the sweat beading my upper lip.
I’m not a potted fern. I can hear you. How could I not? The matrons sat a mere four feet away. And given the volume of sound, I suspected gossips heard it all the way in the Americas.
Those nearby aborted their conversations for only the briefest of moments, a blessing in disguise. No one considered my plight notable enough to warrant a glance of pity, except Mother. Her hot stare threatened to set my shoulders ablaze.
To the elderly woman at her elbow, she said, “An unfortunate blemish, yes. But it shouldn’t hurt her chances overmuch.”
I’ve spent five Seasons without a single offer, Mother. Obviously, my freckles had withered my chances already. That, or the fact that I cared more for plants than for marriage.
Mother confessed in an exaggerated whisper, “We expect to make a match by the end of the Season.” She lowered her voice, but not enough. I heard—along with every married or widowed woman clustered around her thin, blond form. “Lord Valentia has settled a considerable sum for her dowry.”
I groaned aloud. Not the dowry.
Five Seasons had passed with nary an appearance from Mother. Why had she suddenly chosen to take an interest in my unmarried state?
The last flourish of music swallowed up my noise of dismay. Delicate debutantes in the pale colors of youth bent like flowers in the wind to their black-garbed partners. The giggling young women clustered together to gossip over the dancing prowess of their partners as the men scattered in search of lemonade or other refreshments. The sudden crush of people around the perimeter of the dance floor was in itself a sort of dance, one to which no one seemed to know the steps.
“Francine,” Mother called from behind me.
I ignored her. I sidled to my left, away from the reputation-crippling gossips, Mother included.
Not that I had much of a reputation to tarnish. That would require suitors.
Nothing good could come of her announcing my dowry and wishing my presence. I smelled a match being made. I’d rather die a spinster than marry someone who only wanted me for my money. Plenty of lazy fops were interested in that. Papa weeded them out with a ruthlessness that made me cringe. No mere mister would do for the daughter of the Baron of Valentia, only a lord. And a lord with a money problem I did not want.
“Francine, come here a moment.”
When the sun rises in the west, Mother.
Salvation arrived in the form of a matron’s scathing comment. “Such a shame you never bore him a son, my dear. Only one scrawny daughter.”
Mother’s voice brightened immediately. “Actually, molding the gender of a child before birth is quite simple. You only need to know what to eat. In Francine’s case…”
Beaming with relief, I wedged between the two nearest groups of chattering noblemen and noblewomen, effectively disappearing into the crush. Mother never could resist a dissertation on the merits of a plant.
Dotting the sweat from my forehead with a handkerchief, I considered where to take refuge next. The lilting sound of Rose’s well-worn pleasantries shadowed my snail-paced progress. Glancing over my shoulder, I noticed a golden head, taller than most of the men. No doubt she’d spotted me. I loved Rose dearly, but ever since her marriage last Season, she’d seemed to take my lack of a husband as a personal affront and make it her business to graft a match. My heart leaped into my throat. I redoubled my efforts to escape.
Rose danced through the crowd like a royal dance master. Men and women alike melted away from her winning smile to let her pass. That ability would be handy just about now. Unfortunately, it wasn’t one I’d inherited. Invisibility seemed to be my talent. Clearing my throat sometimes couldn’t budge a group.
The man rooted in my path seemed resolute to ignore me. I didn’t recognize him from his dusky jacket or the back of his brown-haired head. Then again, I just described half the men of the ton.
“Excuse me,” I shouted above the chatter, to ensure he heard. “Would you mind moving a step to your left, sir? I’d love to pass through.”
The man turned. Although not the tallest man in the room, he loomed over me. My neck ached from craning it back to examine his face. A frown turned down the pleasing curve of his mouth. His earthy eyes narrowed as he examined me from beneath heavy brows. His hair was swept almost carelessly over his narrow forehead, no doubt a cultivated look, one paired with fashionably groomed side whiskers. Curiously enough, his evening wear was at least three years old, if I recalled the fashions correctly.
I didn’t recognize him. Considering I all but lived at balls during the past five Seasons, I’d thought to have met all the men in London.
His frown eased, replaced by the curious lift of one corner of his mouth. “I don’t believe it. You haven’t changed a bit.”
I peered over my shoulder, trying to gauge the swiftly diminishing distance between Rose and myself. Absently, I answered, “I believe you’ve mistaken me for someone else. If you’ll excuse me.”
I dipped into a curtsey, prompting him to incline his head. Sometimes I adored the stiff etiquette dictating the ton’s every move. With his attention directed elsewhere, I dashed around him. The crowd thinned, but not enough for me to gain freedom. Behind the stranger loomed others; most I’d met, but some faces I didn’t recognize. Many likely returned from war this Season, now that Napoleon had been exiled to Elba.
The crowd to my rear parted enough for a sliver of my friend’s svelte form to peek through. Her periwinkle-blue eyes narrowed with determination as she spotted me. No doubt she suspected I’d been evading her. In an instant, her aggressive expression withered, replaced by a broad smile baring her upper gums. Her genuine smile.
Her beady gaze measured the two groups yet between us, as though she contemplated how best to wage war against this last obstacle. Behind her, Mother elbowed through the crowd. I turned away. Could my luck get any worse? The hounds of Hell nipped at my heels this evening.
A familiar voice wheedled its way past my panicked mind. A woman harped loudly about the objectification of women through dance, no doubt in response to an invitation to join the next set. My knees weakened in relief. Mary.
I lunged toward the sound. In an ungraceful display of snarled limbs, I latched onto Mary’s arm and steered her away from the baffled and belittled suitor. “Quick. I need your help.”
Mary’s mouth puckered. Her eyes narrowed behind her spectacles. She brushed an errant lock of black hair from her forehead. “How can I help?”
I loved Mary just as dearly as Rose, but my friends acted like two guardian angels perched upon either shoulder, each steering me down a different path, neither path a particularly pious one. Guilt flushed my cheeks as I muttered, “Rose is trying to convince me to marry some womanizing old lord.” For all I knew, it might be true.
Still, the moment Mary’s eyebrows knit together in outrage, I inwardly winced. Forgive me, Rose. That expression never meant well for any men in the vicinity. Mary might be small—only an inch taller than me, and slimmer, since she often forgot to eat—but her sharp tongue when it came to her zany ideas about women’s freedom was legendary. And liberally used. If Rose advocated for marriage, Mary firmly believed no woman should give herself to a man like a common possession.
Mary glided forward, jostling me into the animated crowd. I stumbled between two young paramours and dashed for the terrace doors. Behind me, the crowd’s chattering nearly devoured Mary’s characteristically sharp voice.
“Rose, how can you interfere in Francine’s happiness like this?”
I hunched down, sensing Rose scan the crowd. Thankfully, I crouched short enough that she shouldn’t be able to spot me.
“You stay out of this. It is her future happiness I’m concerned about. Where is she?”
I winced. Hopefully, she hadn’t spotted where I’d snuck away to. I’d enclose myself in the withdrawing room if I didn’t think she’d find me there. Rose had the nose of a bloodhound when sniffing out my whereabouts.
I didn’t wait to hear more. I dashed through the tall open terrace doors.
My shoes slapped against the stone as I slipped into the humid summer air. The sweltering heat from indoors evaporated somewhat with the whisper of a breeze. It teased a tendril of hair in front of my face. I batted the brown lock away.
I breathed easier, out of sight of my meddling friends and baffling mother. Even so, I was far from safe. Anyone to meander by the open doors would notice me at the rail.
With renewed breath, I barreled down the stairs. My toes kissed the well-groomed pebbles of the walkway. I tucked myself between two shrubberies, searching for an alternate path. There, the tiniest sliver of gravel winding between the trees.
I started forward, cringing as a rip rent the air. No. Not the dress. I might have to hide here for the rest of the night, maybe for the rest of eternity.
Very, very carefully, I twisted to examine the train of my gown. It flowed loose from the ribbon tied just beneath my breasts. I glimpsed the snag near the hem. Short stubbly thorns had the yellow muslin ensnared.
Prunus spinosa. Blackthorn. Used to hem in cattle and, apparently, me. Not a usual addition to a garden, either; the flowers bloomed and died before the leaves budded, leaving only fat bunches of sour berries. The bush wasn’t especially pretty or sweet-smelling.
And a pain if you ever found yourself ensnared by one.
Bracing my feet, I reached behind me at an awkward angle. The muscles in my back protested. I breathed in short, sharp pants as I bent near double backward to grasp the offending branch. The world twisted sideways. The sharp thorns pricked my fingers through my white gloves, but the fabric saved my flesh from being turned into fertilizer. Rising to the elbow, the gloves saved my lower arms from the shrub’s battle scars, too.
As I tugged my hem free and reversed to a normal position, a muscle in my back twinged. The pain quickly subsided. A heavy sigh of relief escaped my lips.
“A beauty though you are, I wouldn’t mistake you for a flower.”
I stiffened at the voice. I recognized it. From where?
“I can see you, you know.”
Pursing my lips together, I turned around. A man stood on the gravel walkway with eyebrows raised, the same stranger I’d exchanged words with in the ballroom. He was alone. Although I didn’t doubt some of the other guests had scattered in the sultry summer air, no one lingered nearby to chaperone us. On principle, I’d never much cared whether or not I had a chaperone. If I was daubed unmarriageable…well, I’d never found anyone I cared to marry for love or convenience. I had everything I needed.
With this handsome stranger, our solitude seemed dangerous. Men didn’t tend to notice me—with beautiful and outspoken best friends, I tended to fade into the background. I preferred it that way. So why had he followed me?
“I wasn’t trying to hide,” I said. “My hem caught on a bush.”
“Ah.” He gave a gallant bow. “In that case, may I offer my assistance to a damsel in distress?”
Lifting my hem, now free of the bushes, I said, “No need. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be on my way.”
I turned to make my escape, daintily picking my way between the thorny bushes to the slim path beyond.
“Off to meet with a lover?”
The words stopped me cold. Goose bumps of irritation rose on the bare flesh of my upper arms. Turning on my heel, I tramped through the undergrowth to the path on which he stood, not so careful about my dress now. I didn’t care, as long as I put him in his place. Although he loomed over me by at least six inches, I straightened my spine and met him nose-to-nose. Or rather, nose-to-collarbone. I donned my best imitation of Mary at her most righteous. If she’d been here, he’d be in for an even worse tongue flaying.
“What sort of hoyden do you take me for?”
“One who is impeccably dressed.”
I slapped him across the cheek. My palm smarted from the contact. Mary would have cheered me on, if she’d been here. Rose would have berated me for not stealing a kiss.
I shook my head. They ruled my thoughts even while occupying a different room.
The stranger worked his jaw. I’d turned his clean-shaven cheek red with the strike. “Forgive me,” he muttered. Although he stopped rubbing his cheek, he continued to flex his jaw as though he wanted to. “I keep forgetting you’re not my sister.”
My hand, poised to deliver another strike, dropped like a bullet to my side. His sister? Was that meant to be an insult?
“I beg your pardon?”
“You really don’t recognize me, do you?”
My heart pounded from the confrontation. Hard to concentrate. I confined the jittery excitement as I examined him in detail. Beneath the light of the garden lamp and the wan moon, he looked no more familiar than he had in the brighter light of the ballroom.
“Need I repeat myself? You have me mistaken for another woman.”
A wicked twinkle entered his gaze. “I’ll never forget the first girl I kissed.”
My head spun. “Now I know you’re mistaken. I’ve never kissed a man.”
“No?” His grin widened. “Maybe this will refresh your memory.”
Leaning forward, he captured my wrists in each hand, no doubt afraid I’d slap him again —and with good reason. He held me still as I squirmed and planted a chaste kiss on my cheek. The tender skin there tingled.
Dropping his hands, he moved back a pace. Not nearly far enough. His wide, devious grin held me mute.
“You still turn as red as a tomato.”
I hid my burning cheeks beneath my hands. “Are you mad? Anyone to cross onto the terrace will see us.” Alarm sped my pulse. I had to rid myself of his company posthaste or else find myself subjected to it for the rest of my life.
I dove into the cultivated foliage with twin fistfuls of my skirt to wrestle my train into behaving. It snagged on a stray branch within ten seconds. Tears sprung to my eyes, but I blinked them away. Even the bushes conspired to keep me in his presence. I tugged myself free without care to the state of my dress. One small rip would make little difference.
A deep chuckle drifted from behind me, followed by the crunch of booted steps. His breath teased the top of my head. The heat of his body added to the heavy humidity weighing down the summer air.
My white slippers all but glowed in contrast to the soft dark loam at my feet. A beacon, biding me to wait for him to leave. But he didn’t move away. Burying my annoyance, I whirled. My skirt twisted around my legs and I nearly fell against him. He hovered less than a step away.
Exasperation bubbled in my chest. “You may not have a care for my reputation, but I’d thank you not to drag it through the mud. Or are you trying to trap me into marriage?”
The smug expression slipped from his face. He blinked noticeably. Odd how I suddenly noticed his thick eyelashes. Must be the proximity.
He raised his hands, palms outward in surrender. The leather of his gloves bared an inch of skin at his wrists before his shirt covered the lapse. I tore my gaze away from the tawny skin. More than his manner of dress earmarked him as different from the rest of the ton. He was tanned in places usually covered. A former soldier, perhaps?
I shook the idle thought from my head. I didn’t care.
Slowly, I eased one foot behind me. Then another. A stray branch crackled under my toe.
“I meant no disrespect, Francine.”
I stumbled. He steadied me, his gloved hands skimming over the bare flesh of my upper arms, before taking a healthy step back.
“How do you know my name?”
He opened his mouth, but I raised a finger to stall him.
“Don’t say you recall the name of every woman you kiss.”
A grin bloomed across his expressive mouth, the same mouth that had, so recently, caressed my skin.
“Do you need another hint?” He leaned close. His breath teased the curve of my ear as he murmured, “As I recall, you were one of three giggling girls to follow at my brother Joseph’s heels.”
My breath hitched. I eased back enough to meet his gaze. “Julian?”
He nodded, confirming my suspicions.
All traces of breath whooshed from my lungs. “I don’t believe it.”