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The Accidental Elopement

The Accidental Elopement

The Accidental Elopement

Book 4 in the Scandalous Miss Brightwell series

A seven-year secret. A tragic misunderstanding. Can love outwit fate in this twisted tale of misadventure and thwarted dreams?

Earl Quamby’s niece, Katherine, and Jack, a foundling home lad adopted by a local family, have been loyal friends for as long as they can remember.

As Jack is about to leave England to make his fortune and Katherine is being courted by two eligible suitors, they unexpectedly realise their friendship has blossomed into passionate love. A love, they are warned, that has no future.

Despite a brave attempt to defy the forces keeping them apart, tragedy results and the pair is separated.

When chance throws them together seven years later, Katherine, newly widowed, is being pressured into a marriage not of her choosing to avoid scandal and Jack feels he must honour his pledge to the worthy Odette whom he met in India and whose father is dying.

Katherine knows that revealing a long-held secret may win Jack to her but she also knows conflicting obligations from past and present may tear him apart.

Can master matchmakers, Fanny, Antoinette and Bertram Brightwell, outwit fate in its latest attempt to keep these star-crossed lovers apart and deliver them the happiness they deserve?

This is Book 4 in the Scandalous Miss Brightwell series but it can be read as a stand-alone.

Releases February 23, 2018

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Excerpt

Chapter One

Katherine struggled to regulate her breathing as she felt her way along the cold plastered walls of the corridor. She was in complete darkness now, the strains of the orchestra that drifted from the ballroom drowned out by the pounding of her heartbeat.

Soon she’d find sanctuary far from the frenzied throng. Just a few minutes in a silent, empty space was all she needed to gather her wits and decide how she could present herself as a worldly sophisticate rather than the overwhelmed country girl she felt attending her first London ball.

She paused, resting her back against the wall, and ran her hands over the skirts of her ballgown. The cream coloured silk satin skirts, embroidered with gold thread and beads, were held out by layers of tulle, ending just above her ankles to show off her pink satin dancing slippers, while the bodice was cut low and wide with the most beautiful puffed sleeves. Katherine had barely contained her excitement about tonight as Mary, her maid, had helped her into her new gown then dressed her hair in elaborate tiny plaits, swathed around a high twist of hair at the back.

Indeed, she looked every inch the debutante of the season, ready to make her mark in the annals of high fashion and in the gossip pages before waltzing off with the prize catch of the season.  With both her mother and aunt still notable beauties and married to a viscount and an earl, respectively, Katherine was certain she would soon continue the family tradition.

She knew hiding in the dark was ignominious at best and cowardly at worst. And of course her mother would wonder where she was.

She took a deep breath, turned then hesitated.

What if Young George was eyeing the entrance from this dark corridor to the ballroom, ready to pounce?

The moment her gauche young cousin had spied her an hour earlier and commandeered her for her first dance, the event had lost its lustre. She supposed she shouldn’t still call him Young George since he was only six months older than she was. But, when she’d arrived at her aunt and uncle Quamby’s London townhouse ready to take London by storm and had met her cousin for the first time in more than two years, he seemed just as deserving of his childhood moniker as he’d ever been.

Now, instead of pulling her hair to get her attention as had been his wont when they were children, he seemed to be continually puffing himself up and appearing wherever she turned, asking if she admired the new coat his tailor had just sewn for him and could she imagine what muscles he had now he’d taken up pugilism.

On the dance floor his hands had been clammy and he’d held her too close as he’d waltzed her round and round the room. She’d wanted to stamp her foot and give him the kind of dressing down for which she’d been famed as an eight-year-old. But eighteen-year-old misses did not stamp their feet – either in public or in private. Instead, they smiled demurely while they suffered whatever indignity or boredom any gentleman chose to visit upon them. Because that was what a lady did.

Katherine contemplated her return, reluctantly.

The second dance, she’d sat out. She didn’t mind being passed over and had been happy to sit by her mother’s side while Lady Fenton had launched into a spirited gossip with her sister, Aunt Antoinette, whom she’d not seen for some months.

When the next dance had yielded Young George making a beeline in Katherine’s direction, she’d decided it was time to very swiftly sidle away and seek out whatever access she could find to the regions beyond.

She stopped and turned again. It was too early to go back. Her nerves were still jumping all over the place. Right now it was far less overwhelming to grope blindly along the passage in the dark in search of the library where she could sit in front of a fire or peruse an interesting bookshelf for a few minutes than it was to contemplate returning just yet.

Just two more dances should be sufficient. Her mother wouldn’t miss her for two. Three might raise her ire but then supper would be served and hateful George would be all but vanquished if Katherine claimed she was too tired for another polka or whatever musical entertainment followed the ham and buttered bread.

No one had thought to light a candle sconce and this second corridor turning she’d taken was as black as a dungeon. Katherine couldn’t even see her hand but she wasn’t frightened of the dark. No, Katherine was not fainthearted.

Yet she did squeal with complete shock and surprise when, taking another step, her progress was impeded by a very large object and, with no warning at all, she found herself flying through the air, landing with a painful jarring of her wrists upon the cold, hard flagstones.

“Good Lord!” came a disembodied young male voice in the dark before a groping hand located a piece of Katherine – namely a hank of hair – which caused her to shriek even louder when it was quite unnecessarily tugged. Whether this was to establish who or what she was, she had no idea – and perhaps neither did the tugger for immediately a profound apology was issued before the groping hand was operating with complete abandon in the dark.

This time it found Katherine’s breast just as the voice said in tones of utter mortification, “Forgive me! Are you hurt? Here, let me help you. That’s what I was trying to do, I promise. I didn’t realise you were on the ground? Take my hand. Really, I can’t apologise enough.”

Katherine had made one unsuccessful attempt to stand but it was a struggle in her flounced skirt and multiple corded petticoats. She swatted away the supposedly helping hand and hissed something unintelligible – somehow unladylike language seemed less of an offence when she couldn’t see to whom she was speaking.

But when the disembodied groping hand entered her orbit once more – in fact, brushing the bare flash above her garter and getting in a good squeeze of her thigh flesh, her temper which had never been one of her strong points, snapped and she lashed out with a sharp slice through the inky air.

A loud yelp made her realise she’d perhaps been a little peremptory and certainly too violent in this unladylike action and even though she felt disinclined to apologise she did say, ungraciously, “I’m sorry I hit you but a lady can only take so much of all this groping in the dark. I mean…what were you doing?”

“I could ask you the same thing,” came the response, now at ear level. In fact, she could feel the soft whisper of breath against her cheek which made her step back, saying, “I asked first.”

“I was chasing a cat. Bending down in fact. And then suddenly something crashed into me. Or on top of me.”

“That was me.”

“Yes, of course it was you. There’s no one else here, is there?”

Katherine bridled at his tone. She was unused to being spoken to as if she were at fault when, in this case, she most certainly wasn’t. “I think that’s a very rude response,” she told him. “Just as it was very thoughtless of you to crouch down where anybody could simply trip over you.”

“Anybody – or rather, anybody else – would be carrying a candle. I think I have every reason to be deeply suspicious of the motives of anyone who is not.”

“Well, you don’t have a candle. And I would suspect the truth of anyone hiding away in the dark, claiming they were crouching over an imaginary cat,” huffed Katherine. “In fact, I’d wager there was no cat here at all. I would have heard it. No, you were sneaking away from something, weren’t you?”

“And if I was, what business of yours? Whoever you are.”

Katherine could not imagine the audacity. “You certainly are no gentleman to speak to a lady in that fashion.”

“Since that lady hasn’t bothered to declare herself, I think I could be forgiven.”

“A gentleman would have declared himself first,” Katherine said hotly. “What were you sidling away from? There’s a noisy ball going on in the next room. If you were a gentleman, wouldn’t you be gallantly asking the ladies to dance instead of hiding in the dark? Perhaps there’s someone you’re afraid of seeing? A lady who has expectations of you behaving towards her as a gentleman.” Katherine said this triumphantly before elaborating on her theme. “My guess is that you’ve given some poor young lady the idea that you’ll dance with her all night and now you’ve changed your mind and are sneaking away.”

“Since you put forward the idea, I’d suggest the reason you’re here is exactly the same. You’re trying to sneak away from a gentleman to whom you’ve already promised two dances. Meanwhile he, poor fellow, is searching for you vainly in the ballroom while you’re here making a mockery of him.”

“He can do that all by himself,” Katherine sniffed. “But I never promised him anything and I never will.”

“Ha! I was right.” The voice sounded very pleased with itself. “Well, I feel sorry for this fellow without even seeing what you look like, miss. Poor fellow!”

“Poor fellow, indeed. George can pine til the cows come home. I’d even suffer talking to you than have to spend another five minutes with his sweating hands squeezing mine and his moon eyes boring into me…and his horrible, putrid breath choking me and his—”

“Poor George! I was just starting to feel sorry for him until you described the exact George I, too, am so at pains to avoid tonight.” The voice became more confidential and the mood relaxed.

Katherine crossed her arms and waited for him to speak again for she was rather interested in his George and then quite amused when the voice began to describe the very George against whom she railed.

“Well, you have described my cousin to a very fine point,” she laughed. “And if you are as well acquainted with him as you seem to be, then you obviously know exactly why I am here in the dark.”

There was a small silence. And then, “Your cousin?”

“In my family there are two Georges: Young George who is the son of my aunt and her husband, Lord Quamby, and Odious George who is his uncle, George Bramley.”

“Then we’re talking about the same George!” The voice sounded stunned.

A quick gasp from both of them was followed up by a delighted cry in unison.

“Jack!”

“Katherine!”

Katherine laughed at the ludicrousness of it.

“Is that really you?” When the seeking hand came in contact with her cheek, Katherine gripped his wrist to hold it in place as she raised her hand to feel for his face.

Of course, it was terribly unladylike behaviour and had there not been the mantle of darkness lending their reunion such an air of familiarity and unreality, she’d not have been nearly so forward. But, with their hands on respective cheeks and around waists, such a greeting seemed quite natural.

“I can’t believe it’s you, Jack. I haven’t seen you for five years and I certainly didn’t expect to see you tonight.”

“That’s because my mother is visiting Quamby House but as we arrived late, she decided to remain at home while I said I needed activity after the long drive.”

“Mama said nothing about you coming. I knew she was expecting visitors and I do remember her mentioning your parents but then she said you’d not be accompanying them so I lost interest and in fact didn’t even consider the visit might be this weekend.”

“You lost interest? Do you mean you were interested before?”

“Of course!” Katherine laughed. “I wanted to see if I could still make you do whatever I told you to, now that you were grown.”

He laughed too. Katherine had been notorious for sending Jack on all sorts of errands when he was just the foundling child visiting Quamby House before he was adopted by the well-to-do Eliza and Rufus Patmore. She and Jack had spent a great deal of time together as children before Jack had left the district with his parents. Katherine’s last visit to Patmore Farm had been when she was twelve.

“Is that what you thought, eh?”

“I could always make you do what I wanted you to, Jack.” She heard the edge of wickedness to her tone and tensed in expectation of having her hair pulled. There’d been a lot of chasing and tumbling on the ground when Katherine had been seven and Jack eight. Even during that last visit, when she’d been on the cusp of adolescence, seeing Jack again was like having a lamp turned on, warming the little heart that was in danger of becoming too caught up with adult cares.

“You’ll never know, will you?”

“Are you daring me?”

“Of course.”

Katherine thought. She ran her hand over his cheek, the pads of her fingers keenly attuned to the light dusting of stubble.  Then she slowly contoured his jawline. She felt him shudder slightly though he didn’t move. Then, with a flat hand, she gently contoured his shoulder line. It was a broader shoulder than she remembered. The cloth of his well cut coat was smooth and rough at the same time and she felt the sharp line of his collar.

He seemed to hold himself rigid. Rapt. She was sure a small sigh of disappointment escaped him when she removed her hands.

“All right, but you must promise you will do I say before I tell you what you must do.”

“Hmm.” She felt his breath in the cold air between them and her mouth stretched into a smile of anticipation as she waited for him to reply. Jack had been her willing slave, fulfilling her every demand with the utmost good humour until he’d read a point where he’d declare his chivalry was at an end and she could ask until the cows came home but he’d not pick another apple or climb to the highest branch of the pine tree at the bottom of the garden of Quamby House before his next visit from the foundling home.

“I’m afraid I’m old enough and wise enough to no longer agree to carry out promises that are not reasonable ones. You taught me a lot, Katherine, including that I must be wary of what I promise. Otherwise I could end up plunging my hand into a basket of spiders or a hornets’ nest.”

“I never made you thrust your hands into a hornet’s nest!” Katherine was indignant.

“But you did have me thrust my hands into a basket full of spiders. I do remember that.”

Katherine remembered it well. It had been at the pinnacle of her power when she was eight and Jack was going through a stage of wanting to prove how brave and strong he was. This was just after the Patmores had adopted him.  “All right. What if I promised that my request would be something I knew would be good for you. What if I said that, like you, I’m no longer a foolish child but an adult of good sense who would only order you do something that I knew you would not regret, or cause you harm.”

“Hmmm.” The considering tone came again. “Yet you want me to first of all promise you that I will do the thing you request of me.”

“Yes. I’ve never done you harm. So it’s not an unreasonable request, is it?”

“Knowing you as I do, it’s not unreasonable at all. And taking very large risks is something I pledged I’d always be prepared to do for you, right from when I was a boy. You know I’ve always been your slave, fair Katherine, so, yes, I will promise to carry out this request, or at least attempt to. And now I wait in anticipation to hear what it is. Even if means going back into the ballroom and being chums again with Young George, which I know I should be. He’s not a bad fellow, but tonight I think he’d out of his depth and the poor old chap doesn’t know how to behave when he’s all at sea.”

“I won’t send you back to George.” Katherine smiled into the dark, her heart starting to hammer as she considered the very big request she was about to make of him. It hadn’t occurred to her until just this moment but the intimacy between them, based as it was on a lifelong friendship, didn’t make it seem outrageous in the slightest. “I want you to kiss me.”

“Kiss you?” He laughed. “That’s very brazen. Can I first ask you why? You haven’t seen me for five years. I might have ghastly spots all over my face, and lost my front teeth and cause shivers of revulsion to run down your spine if you were observing me in the lamplight right now. Why, I might even be more unprepossessing than Young George.”

“I don’t think that’s possible. But, have you?”

“What?”

“Got spots all over your face.”

“I’m not going to tell you. That’ll mean you’re the one taking all the risks. I’ve just warned you of the potential pitfalls and now you have to think the worst while I kiss you so that you can hold firm to your dignity and control your horror when we both get into the light again.”

Before Katherine had a chance to speak, she felt the tips of his fingers lightly brush her cheeks before he cupped her face. Then, after a second’s agonising anticipation, his lips gently touched hers.

Katherine was enthralled. She twined her arms around the back of his neck, eager to deepen the kiss as his tongue gently breached the seam of her lips. Molten pleasure coursed through her and she opened her mouth wider as the sensory delight grew more intense.

With a sigh, she sagged slightly as he drew back, his hands clasping hers and squeezing them in the dark.

“You did that so well,” Katherine told him approvingly. “Have you done it much before?”

“A few times.” He paused. “But I never enjoyed it as much as this time.”

“Is it very different kissing different people?”

“You’ve never kissed anyone, I take it?”

“No. That’s why I asked you to do it. So, I’d know what to expect. I’m going to London in a month to be presented and mama and Aunt Antoinette have been drilling me like sergeant majors on how to make the most of myself in order to make the best match I can.”

“You always were ambitious, my dear Katherine.”

There was something about the way he used the familiar term that made her feel quivery all the way down to her feet.

“I just know what I’m worth.” She said it in a proud, haughty tone, overlaid with humour. “That’s what Antoinette says I must think every time I weigh up an offer.” She giggled. “You’d remember my aunt, of course!”

“Lord, how could I forget the redoubtable, scandalous Lady Quamby. Your mother and her sister were the ton’s reigning beauties.”

“And don’t you dare suggest in front of them that they’re anything less, today,” Katherine teased.

“As a gentleman, I am well versed in tact.”

“You always were. And now I really should return else mama will tear strips off me. I’ve been gone far too long as it is.” She put her hand on the cold stone wall and half turned. “Are you coming?”

“I think I’ll make my departure now and find a hackney to take me to Quamby House. I expect I’ll find mama still be up playing cards with the Earl. He was very delighted to see her again and not the slightest bit disappointed that Uncle Rufus couldn’t accompany her. Lots of stories to share.” He paused. “Unless you’d like me to return with you.”

Katherine considered then shook her head, even though she knew he couldn’t see her. “No, I’ll go alone. You can be my special secret. I’d rather no one knew we’d stumbled upon each other here in the dark when we meet back at Quamby House tonight.”

His soft chuckle followed her as she groped her way back to the bright lights of the ball room. And it sustained her with a happy internal glow as Young George’s face lit up when he encountered her at the supper table.

“You look very pleased with yourself, Katherine,” he remarked, touching her elbow. “Anticipating the final dance of the evening with me?”

Katherine sighed but kept her smile in place. “All right, George. If that’ll please you.”

Her lips were still thrumming with pleasurable delight at the memory of Jack’s kiss but now the idea of being in George’s cloying waltz hold would remind her of how important it was to find herself a husband who made her feel the excitement and pleasure Jack’s touch inspired rather than the weary resignation she felt being with George.

End of Chapter One

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