Excerpt: Invitation to Passion
The Honorable Mr. Craven (August, 1802)
As promised, a short note to inform you that your warning has worked. I’ve had no further encounters with the Chesterton bullies of the bruising kind.
Ever your grateful friend,
PS. Will you be coming to Hascombe for Christmas?
Newmarket, April 1810 – eight years later
Richard John Craven was a dead man. That’s if Charles Chesterton, the Marquess of Wrentham found him. Maddy watched the Marquess as he stood at the top of the stairs surveying the guests in the crowded ballroom below. His presence here at Hascombe Court meant only one thing. He’d come for his wife.
A curse on Richard’s head.
Richard should have ended his affair as soon as his lover, Sarah, had married Wrentham, but Lady Wrentham had arrived without her husband, and it appeared their affair wasn’t yet over. Maddy had seen Richard and Sarah slip away together over an hour ago. Now, she would have to get involved. She hated getting involved. However, Richard was her best friend and he had looked after her welfare for years. A tremor of annoyance went through her at the obligation upon her to return the favor.
Madeline Knight, you are such a liar. She wanted to return the favor.
Maddy blew a curl out of her eyes, and peered through the plants sheltering her from the vultures within the ton. She’d been hiding here for most of the evening. Rufus had organized this ball for her. She loved her brother, but he’d recently married his one true love, Rheda, and he was determined to help his young sister find the same happiness.
Unfortunately, Madeline’s idea of a suitable husband differed vastly from his. She did not wish to marry into the upper echelons of society. Due to her father’s rumored treason, she’d grown up in seclusion here at their country estate near Newmarket. She had spent her childhood scared of her shadow for fear of being made the subject of further gossip and derision. Her life was spent constantly worrying that she would do something dreadful and disgrace the family even further. She remembered how horrified her mother was, when the Marquess of Wrentham had caught Maddy, swimming naked with the gamekeeper’s children. She’d only been eight-years-old yet, it was as if she was guilty of treason herself. She’d been subjected to taunts from the local gentry’s children for weeks. She’d made a point of never doing anything that would mean having to face her mother’s disappointment again.
Now, even though she’d reached the age of twenty-one, this was her first season. Society had all but shunned her.
However, all that had changed when, a few months ago, Rufus had cleared their late father of treason and he’d been given an additional title, the Earl of Hascombe.
“This is where you are hiding.”
Drat, she’d been caught. “I was merely taking a minute to collect myself,” she told her sister-in-law.
“Fibber. You’ve been loitering behind this palm for at least half an hour.” Rheda’s astute gaze showed her disappointment in Maddy’s behavior.
“I can’t stand being on display, you know that. I’m bound to make a mistake.”
Rheda linked her arm with hers and drew her out to the edge of the ballroom floor. “How are you supposed to meet the man of your dreams when you insist on hiding.”
How did she tell her sister-in-law that the man of her dreams would never truly see her as anything but a friend, worse still, his best friend’s little sister. Besides, she dreaded having to marry a man in high society.
Due to the scandal surrounding the Strathmore’s it had always been expected that she would marry beneath her social standing—perhaps to a local squire, or vicar. She felt perfectly capable of settling into the quiet country life, that’s what she was used to. Oh, she wanted a family, children, a lot of children, siblings, no lonely childhood for her children. But she wanted to marry someone she felt equal to, a man who wouldn’t constantly judge her and find her lacking.
“No one will judge you know. Thanks to your brother, your late father is a hero, Rufus is an earl and society is groveling to make up for their spiteful treatment of your mother over the years. You should be making them grovel harder, walking proudly, with head held high.”
The ‘sent to Coventry’ existence she’d lived all her life, changed with her brother’s elevated position, and now she was expected to embrace the ton, and forgive society for banishing them. Yet, being a stranger to high society, the strictures and sophistication of the ton frightened her to death.
“Why don’t you find Richard and get him to dance with you,” Rheda said with a wink. “Where is he by the way,” Rheda added as she scanned the crowded room.
“Why would I know where he is?” Maddy knew exactly where he was but the least number of people who also did the better.
Rheda laughed. “You may be able to fool your brother, sweetheart, but not me. You’re infatuated with Richard. I don’t blame you, he’s utterly gorgeous.” At Maddy’s open mouth, Rheda said, “What? I may be married to your brother but I’m not blind. Besides, there is no harm in looking.”
Maddy stuttered, “You best not let Rufus here you talking like that, he’s very jealous of you.”
Rheda sighed and looked across the room to her husband. “That’s why I look. A little reminder not to take me for granted, and that he is a married man.” Her eyes narrowed. “To remember for instance, that when women like Lady Capperel come flirting, that it is not wise to respond.”
Maddy followed Rheda’s gaze and bit back a laugh. Lady Capperel was flirting outrageously with Rufus and Maddy saw that her brother was in an absolute flap about what to do. “I think you best go and rescue him.”
Rheda sighed. “Sometimes it’s annoying having such a handsome husband.” She hugged Maddy and whispered in her ear, “Except in the bedroom of course.”
Maddy smiled. Her brother would never betray his wedding vows, and neither would Rheda. She’d never seen a couple so in love, well, perhaps Richard brother, Anthony, the Earl of Markham and his beautiful wife Melissa.
That’s what she wanted, a man who loved her as much as Rufus love Rheda.
It had taken some getting used to, having her brother residing permanently at home again, however, she did not wish to leave his household any time soon. Due to the differences in their ages, and the many years he’d spent away from home on his mission to clear the Strathmore name, she was relishing this time to get to know him. She was just beginning to have a real relationship with him.
Witnessing Rufus living at home, married and in love, Maddy knew settling for marriage with a man she didn’t love was no longer on the cards.
Unfortunately, only one man filled her dreams and he was in love with another. Speaking of which, with growing unease Maddy watched Lord Wrentham scan the ballroom, then begin to make his way across the crowded floor. Luckily, the room was packed. Tonight it seemed that all London society were in attendance, with many making the journey to Newmarket to witness the black sheep being welcomed back into the bosom of society. They definitely weren’t here to meet her.
Her eyes followed the Marquess’s path through the guests. Lord Wrentham was definitely looking for someone, and she was sure it was his beautiful wife, Sarah. It was up to Maddy to warn the lovers.
She straightened her shoulders and stepped out into the crush. The music drowned out the sound of her determined stride. She circled round until she was able to locate her brother, flirting with his wife. At her arrival Rheda glided away to speak to other guests. Rheda made it look effortless and given she’d also lived her life outside of society, Maddy envied her way of fitting in as if she’d lived within the bosom of the ton all her life.
“Lord Wrentham has arrived. You should go and greet him. Now would be the perfect opportunity to put the past behind you. He carries at lot of influence in the House of Lords. Lord Wrentham could be a valuable ally.” This was not really a lie. Rufus had decided to take a special interest in the rights of workers, a result of his wife’s influence, and he was chasing the Marquess’s vote on labor law reform.
Her brother kissed her lightly on the cheek. “Don’t think you can distract me by mentioning politics.”
Maddy’s heart stilled. Had Rufus seen Richard leave with Lady Wrentham? “I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.”
“I’ve seen you hiding behind the plants. I would have made you stand center stage, but Rheda told me to leave you alone.”
All the while as her brother talked, Maddy was guiding him ever closer to Wrentham.
“Your wife is, as always, a gem. What is this rush to get me to the altar? I’ve only just got you back in my life. Now you are married, don’t you want me here?” She couldn’t disguise the hurt in her voice. Her brother’s determination to see her quickly wed made her feel as if she was a nuisance once again.
Rufus halted, oblivious to their guests as he pulled her close. “Is that what you think?” He hugged her tight. “Never think for one moment I want you to leave my house. If I could, I’d hold onto you forever, but that would be selfish. I just don’t like seeing you stuck here in the country, on your own, like Rheda was. You deserve more.”
Relief flooded through her. She lightly cuffed his shoulder. “I do not intend to marry any time soon, so stop pushing me.” Before Rufus could argue, she added, “There’s Lord Wrentham. Go and bore him with your talk. You can lecture me tomorrow at breakfast.”
She abruptly turned and schooled herself to walk away slowly, and in the opposite direction from the library, where she assumed Richard had taken Sarah.
Richard knew every square inch of this house intimately. Over the years, he’d spent many nights under this roof and many nights teasing her, teaching her, talking to her.
She had to warn him. Richard was her only true friend, and she didn’t wish to see him killed in a duel, or sent fleeing from England for having killed Lord Wrentham. Most of the young ladies her age were aloof, keeping their distance, scared that a friendship with her would sully their reputations.
Once out of sight of the guests, Maddy lifted the hem of her dress and rushed toward the library. Sliding to a halt outside the door, her courage momentarily fled. What would she observe when she opened this door? Was she prepared to see her Richard in the arms of another?
Her Richard! She acknowledged her claim was a monumental fantasy. Richard was her friend. That was all. He still saw her as the thirteen-year-old girl he’d rescued from the Chesterton bullies.
Just a friend, she silently scolded herself. Yet Maddy couldn’t understand the riotous inner feelings she’d developed over the last eighteen months. Whenever she looked at Richard, her heart beat harder, her stomach knotted, and her body warmed in certain places she was too embarrassed to even think about, let alone mention.
A stab of jealousy hit hard in her chest. Madeline secretly hoped Richard was doing nothing more than talking with Lady Wrentham. But she knew Sarah was the love of Richard’s life, and realized it was unlikely they were simply conversing.
But a girl could dream.
She’d been dreaming of Richard a lot lately.
She shook her head, cleared her confusing thoughts, and knocked hard on the door. She waited but there was no response. She pressed her ear to the door, but could hear nothing through the thick walnut.
“Sweetheart, we shouldn’t be in here alone. You’re recently married and the ton is watching our every move.” Richard Craven’s chest ached at the pain he saw in Sarah’s eyes. He’d not seen Sarah for over a month, not since her wedding to Charles Chesterton, Marquess of Wrentham.
She stood before him in a swathe of gossamer silk, a vision of beauty and now another man’s possession. Her pale-gold ball gown hugged every sensuous curve. Her fair hair elegantly piled on her head, left waves of curls draped over her bare shoulders like jewels. He itched to run his hands through the silky, soft tresses.
She reached out and placed a gloved finger on his lips, halting his words of caution. The glove outlined slender fingers he wanted to kiss, and to feel wrapped around….
Sarah knew how to dress in that innocent, yet alluring, way that sent a man’s pulse racing.
Now Richard drank in every inch of her, and damn it, grew hard. He should have more self-control. She was no longer his lover, but like any red-blooded man, he wasn’t immune to a beautiful and willing woman, or at least his body wasn’t. If he’d only known how things would turn out, he would never have taken her to his bed. They had planned to marry, but they had not foreseen the objections of Sarah’s father, the Duke of Martinborough.
His heart still clenched in his chest every time he remembered that she now belonged to Wrentham. When the Duke denied his suite, he’d begged her to elope, but her father had held all the cards and played his hand accordingly.
In the end, it had been Sarah’s choice. She wasn’t strong enough to go against her father’s wishes and now they were all paying the price. She’d married Wrentham and destroyed any chance of them being together.
So, as he had watched from the sidelines, the woman he loved had married another. It still ate him up and at the same time, showered him with guilt because a small part of him was relieved.
“Don’t desert me, please, my love. I can barely stand my life as it is. When he touches me…,” she gave a half sob. “I close my eyes and dream it’s you.”
He couldn’t bear looking into her pain filled eyes, so he pulled her close and soothed her as he would a small child. His voice echoed in despair. “I don’t know what more I can do. You refused to elope with me and thwart your father. What did you think would happen if you went through with this wedding?”
He hated how harsh his words sounded, but there was little else he could say. She simply clung harder as if he had the power to save her. He didn’t and it was almost destroying him. If anything, his getting involved would make it worse. “I have to let you go, just as you must try and make a good life with Charles.”
“That’s impossible, especially as he knows you were my lover.”
“You underestimated him, my love. Telling him you’d given yourself to me was unlikely to see him release you from the wedding contract. It would only have made him want you more. Charles hates me almost as much as he hates Rufus Knight.”
“And me. I’m sure he hates me…” and she tried to kiss him.
Richard gently pushed her away. “I can’t do this, Sarah. I’ll always be your friend and confidant, but I cannot be more.” He watched the light leave her eyes. “I will never understand why you did not elope with me, but what is done is done. It will hurt all of us in the long run if I do not let you go.”
“So you’ll leave me to my punishment?” she cried bitterly.
“No. I shall always be your friend. If Charles hurts you in any way, I’ll protect you as much as I can.”
“How?” She threw her hands up and stalked over to the large window of the library, the dark night outside as turbulent as the emotions flying around the room. She stood with her back to him, straight and tall, defying all that the world had thrown at her.
The impotency of his situation made anger burn hot in his veins. “Christ, I don’t know, but we cannot carrying on an affair. It will only be worse for you.”
Her shoulders suddenly slumped in defeat. “It’s hopeless, isn’t it? We’ll never be together. Ever.” She shuddered. “You know the man he is. Cold, cruel—sometimes I fear for my safety.”
“He doesn’t physically abuse you, does he?” He gripped her arms tight as he turned her toward him. “Does he hurt you?” She stared at him like a helpless puppy; her eyes big and round with dread. The muscles of his stomach clenched in hot stabs of agony. “I’ll kill him.”
During his childhood, he’d watched his father abuse his twin brother, Anthony, because he was the heir. Their father decided Anthony should be broken down and made as cold and cruel as him. Richard was powerless to stop the abuse Anthony received, while he’d enjoyed a pain free upbringing with their mother.
Richard was no longer powerless and he would not stand idly by and let Wrentham, Marquess or not, husband or not, bully and hurt Sarah.
“Don’t do anything stupid like challenge him. I couldn’t bear it if you were hurt, killed, or had to flee England. What would I do then? He doesn’t hit me. He’s—rough—that’s all.” She took his hand and placed it on her delicate cheek. “As long as I know you are here for me, I’ll survive. He can’t touch what we share in here,” and she pressed her other hand to her breast. “My heart will always belong to you.”
He couldn’t help himself at her earnest declaration. His mouth captured hers in an anguished kiss. She moved into his arms and the familiar rush of desire enveloped them both.
When she reached lower to stroke him through his tight breeches he tried to resist but…
Madeline knocked hard on the door. She waited but there was no response. She pressed her ear to the door, but could hear nothing through the thick walnut.
Feeling like a thief and not wanting to be caught, she tentatively opened the door. “Richard, are you there…?”
Although there was no response to her greeting, she heard the soft, breathy cries of a lady. Sarah sounded like she was in pain. What on earth was Richard doing to her?
Not wishing anyone who happened to venture into the hall to see or hear, she stepped into the room and rather loudly closed the door behind her. Surely this would announce her presence.
The room was dimly lit, but she could make out two people on the settee. They still appeared not to have heard or seen her.
“Ahem,” she tried with an added cough. She knew she should not look at the couple, but the quest for knowledge about what went on between a man and woman, overrode all sense of propriety.
She stood mesmerized. Richard had discarded his jacket and waistcoat. They lay thrown behind him on the floor, as if he’d disrobed in a hurry. His shirt was on, much to her disappointment, although Maddy was too scared to acknowledge that thought.
He knelt on the floor, leaning over Sarah who lay prone on the settee. Maddy moved closer and gasped, and her hand flew to her mouth. Sarah’s gown lay in folds of silk at her waist; her breasts were bare. Her hands were clutching Richard’s thick, glossy hair, holding him indecently close. Richard appeared to be suckling her breast like a babe.
Maddy tore her gaze away from the erotic sight to look worriedly at the door. The situation was scandalous and Lord Wrentham would have every right to challenge Richard if he entered.
The image of Richard fighting a duel, and his possible subsequent injury or death, spurred her on. She gathered her composure, moved closer, and in a loud voice uttered, “I hate to interrupt but”-
Richard barely lifted his head from Sarah’s breast. “Go away, brat” he growled.
“Believe me, I’d love to but”-
-“Christ, not now, Maddy. What the hell are you doing in here?” Richard sat back on the balls of his feet, still on his knees at Sarah’s feet.
All Maddy could see was a very angry and gorgeous Richard.
She couldn’t seem to get her lungs to work. Her breath caught in her throat as she soaked up the beauty of the naked expanse of rippling stomach and muscled chest displayed through the flaps of Richard’s open shirt.
He rose to his feet, anger scoring his handsome features. “This better be important or, by God, I’ll put you over my knee. Do you realize how inappropriate it is for you to be in here?”
Maddy’s temper flared. “It’s not as inappropriate as seducing another man’s wife.”
Her barb hit its mark, for she watched Richard’s fists clench at his sides, and Sarah gave a cry of distress.
Maddy tore her gaze from Richard and looked at Sarah. She’d covered herself, drawing her gown back on. Her face was filled with misery and Maddy felt a stab of regret at her words. Sarah loved Richard, but had been forced into a marriage with Charles. Maddy did feel genuine pity for her. She knew first-hand what a bully all the Chestertons were. Marriage to Charles would be a nightmare. However, she would not let Sarah’s terrible life-choice destroy her friend. Sarah should have stood up to her father. She should have chosen Richard and had faith in him.
“I’m sorry, Sarah, that was unkind.”
“Damn right. This is none of your business.” For the first time in her life, Richard looked at her with something akin to hate. She swallowed back tears.
“Charles is here. He’s looking for Sarah. He thinks she’s with you. And, of course, he’s right,” she couldn’t help adding.
Richard swore and Sarah jumped to her feet. “He can’t find me with you. He’ll kill me.” Sarah stood quaking, looking helplessly at Richard for assistance.
This time it was Maddy who clenched her fists. Once again, Sarah’s only concern was for herself.
“I won’t let him hurt you,” Richard vowed.
Maddy didn’t see how Richard could ever promise that unless he killed Charles. Oh, no, kill Charles! He’d do it—for Sarah.
Maddy’s insides went cold, and at that precise moment she hated Sarah more than she had ever hated anyone or anything before.
She simply would not let Richard throw his life away on a selfish woman. Sarah had been too weak and stupid to trust in love. Richard had offered to elope with her, to marry her and save her from Charles. Instead this woman had preferred to honor her father’s dictate, and then had decided to carry on an affair with Richard, placing her purportedly one true love in acute danger.
Maddy would never have been so selfish. Sarah should have called off the affair as soon as she had married. She’d made her choice. Sarah should honor the vows she had made with Wrentham.
Richard moved to the door and cracked it open. “Christ, it’s Wrentham walking this way.”
Sarah’s face turned ashen and Maddy instantly comprehended the peril the two lovers were in.
“I have a plan. Sarah can slip through the secret door to the study, and then make her way down the west corridor back to the ballroom. You will stay here with me so Charles has no proof you were with Sarah. If you’re found here with me, Wrentham might believe you couldn’t possibly have been with his wife.”
“Then what are you and I doing here?”
She swallowed hard at Richard’s question. “I’ll pretend your assignation is with me.”
Richard’s face reddened. “I don’t think that’s wise…” Sarah let out a wail at his refusal.
“Charles would take great delight in torturing me if he sees me with you.”
“I can’t see any other choice. If we all escape through the secret door, his suspicions will be raised. He’s looked everywhere for his wife. If anyone has told him she was with you, we had best disprove that concept immediately.” Maddy clapped her hands. “Quickly, we don’t have time for dramatics.”
Richard finally nodded his assent and hurried Sarah to the bookcase. He pulled the secret lever and the wall of books slid back revealing a narrow corridor. He kissed Sarah and pushed her gently inside. “Go. Tidy yourself and make your way back to the ballroom. I’ll send word later.”
The false wall of books slid back into place, leaving the library filled with thwarted silence. Richard ran a hand through his hair.
Maddy whispered, “You can thank me later.”
“I ought to wring your bloody neck for risking your reputation on this stupid stint. I’m perfectly capable of confronting Wrentham.”
“Oh, yes. That would be the perfect answer. Kill Wrentham and be hung for murder. Then who would protect Sarah?”
“Bloody hell. What a mess,” the anger in his voice had gone, now replaced with sadness.
No sooner had Richard walked back to stand at Maddy’s side, than the door crashed open. Lord Wrentham stood in the doorway a towering mass of wrath.
Richard, his clothes in disarray, moved to stand in front of Maddy to shield her from Wrentham’s view.
“Get your hands off my wife.” Charles’s bellow shook the room. The music in the ballroom was all that saved them from having the entire household hear his allegation.
Wrentham wasn’t stupid. She would have to play the part of Richard’s paramour if this ruse was to be believed.
Madeline reached round Richard’s body and slipped her hand inside his shirt, fingers tingling as she found his bare chest. She pulled her gown off her shoulders, exposing more of her bosom than was decent.
However, she had not expected the feminine gasp that accompanied her maneuver. Her sister-in-law was with Lord Wrentham. She peered round Richard’s wide shoulders and tried to catch Rheda’s eye.
“Richard, how could you? Rufus will kill you.” Rheda’s anguished cry saw Maddy drop her hand from Richard’s heated skin.
There was no point hiding. Maddy stepped out from behind Richard, but she couldn’t explain the situation without putting Richard’s life in danger.
“Not content to bed other men’s wives, it now appears you’ve lowered yourself even further. Have you no honor? Now you’ve taken to bedding your friend’s sister.” Lord Wrentham turned to Rheda. “I apologize for exposing Mr. Craven’s salaciousness. I’d love to stay and watch your husband kill him, but I need to find my wife.”
Maddy put her hand on Richard’s back willing him to hold his tongue. She could feel the muscles beneath her hand knot with fury.
Just when she’d thought the situation couldn’t get worse, she heard a voice that made her senses scream flee.
“Rheda, Lord Wrentham, what are you doing in the library?”
“Is there another party going on in here?” Another woman’s voice joined the conversation. She stood unseen in the corridor. Maddy didn’t recognize the voice but the speaker sounded elderly.
Silence greeted the newcomers.
Maddy took a step backwards. She watched as Rufus took in the scene in front of him and in dismay saw his face turn purple with rage. “Maddy,” he yelled and everything that followed became a blur.
She heard Rheda scream, “Rufus, no,” while Richard put his hands out and stated, “Let me explain…”
Her brother did not wait for any explanation. He let out a string of curses before he launched himself on Richard, tackling him to the ground and nearly knocking Maddy off her feet.
“I’ll kill you, you bastard.”
Wrentham laughed and added, “If you do, I’ll owe you my thanks,” before turning and walking back toward the ballroom.
Rheda looked at Maddy over the men slugging it out on the floor, and shook her head. “I’ll get Anthony.” She too dashed off, determined to fetch Richard’s twin brother, leaving Maddy facing a very grim and disapproving Lady Horsham, the absolute ruler of the ton.
“While I approve wholeheartedly of your choice in men, my girl, I do not condone your methods of getting him to the altar.” With that, she turned on her heels and left Maddy alone with the two men, with one apparently trying to kill the other. As she loved them both, she didn’t know what to do. She tried to pull Rufus off Richard, as he laid shielding himself and not fighting back.
Thankfully, Anthony, Richard’s twin brother, and Rufus’s friend, Lord Stephen Milton, Marquis of Worthington, arrived to separate them. It took both men to hold Rufus back.
Richard, his lip bloodied, stood breathing heavily. “How could you even think I’d touch Maddy? She’s the sister I’ve never had.”
“How? Look at you. You were alone in the room with her. Half undressed with your shirt hanging open. What the hell was I to think?”
“But you didn’t think, did you,” Richard spat the words out. “You simply accused.”
Anthony’s wife, Melissa, followed Rheda back into the room and closed the door. She calmly said, “Can you please keep your voices down? We do not need the rest of the guests to hear.”
Rheda looked toward Maddy. “I’m sure Richard has a very good explanation for his behavior.”
“He better or I swear to God I’ll kill him.” Even Maddy was shocked at the violence in her brother’s voice.
She stamped her foot. She’d had enough of all this male bravado. Avoiding a duel was exactly why she’d risked this scene in the first place. She hadn’t saved Richard from Wrentham, to have him fight a duel with her brother.
“Stop it. Just stop it. This situation is my fault, not Richard’s. I was the one who butted my nose in. Richard was here with Lady Wrentham. I interrupted their liaison. I knew Lord Wrentham was looking for his wife.”
Rufus looked somewhat mollified but still said, “I ought to beat you senseless for exposing Maddy to your rakish behavior.”
Rheda cleared her throat. “I hate to add fuel to the fire but we have more to worry about. Lady Horsham saw Richard and Madeline. Together. Alone in this room, and Richard was in a state of undress.”
Melissa nodded. “There will be consequences,” and she smiled at her husband. Anthony gazed back at her adoringly. “We know all about consequences, don’t we darling?”
“My wife’s correct.” Anthony tried not to grin. Over a year ago, Richard had instigated a plan that saw his brother, Anthony, compromise Melissa. Their marriage had started out rocky but had ended in a love match. The couple was insanely happy together. “It would appear you are about to get your just rewards, brother dear. Turn and turn about. You saw to it that I thoroughly compromised Melissa, for which I thank you every day. And in return I didn’t have to do a thing. You managed to compromise a lady all by yourself.”
Maddy started to shake. Compromised? She rubbed her forehead, panic taking hold as she realized her nightmare was coming true. She had caused a scandal. Flustered she blurted out her only hope. “Don’t be ridiculous. I’m sure we can explain the situation to Lady Horsham. Richard didn’t touch me.”
Rheda and Melissa looked at each other and then back at Maddy. Ice entered her veins upon noting the sympathy in their eyes.
Rheda walked over and took Maddy’s hand. “Why don’t we ladies leave? Melissa, find Sarah and take her to the retiring room and then escort her back to the ballroom. Charles will think she’s been with you. I’ll take Madeline back to the ballroom. I’m sure the men have things to discuss.”
Maddy looked at Richard in silent appeal, but he would not look her in the eye. Nausea rocked her to her core.
“We should go back to the ballroom. The men will take care of the arrangements.” Rheda, at only a few years older than Maddy, seemed years older in experience. “You must be brave and hold your head up high. Brazen out the situation.” Before she could protest, Rheda led her from the room.
“Brave? Situation? Surely Lady Horsham is not spiteful enough to gossip if we explain why I was in the room,” She insisted.
“Lord Wrentham also saw you. He will have told half the ton by now. He has wanted to destroy Richard ever since he learned Sarah is still in love with him.”
Maddy clasped her hands together tightly trying to stop the shaking and bile stuck in her throat.
Rheda was correct, and as soon as they entered the ballroom, Maddy knew her fate was sealed. Her worst nightmare was playing out in front of her. Scandal. Every eye in the room was upon her. They could not hide their superior knowing smiles and malicious sneers.
Maddy felt light headed and she gripped her sister-in-law’s arm for support.
“Oh, my, God. What have I done?”