A Lady of Letters
Book Two—Scandalous Secrets
Awkward and outspoken, Augusta Peabody is frowned upon by London Society for failing to have the social graces of a proper young lady. Little do they know that she’s also “Firebrand”, the outspoken social reformer whose newspapers columns are the talk of the town. Her secret seems safe . . .
Until the rakish Earl of Dunham gets involved. Tired of his wastrel ways, Dunham decides to become more serious about his parliamentary duties, and takes up Firebrand’s cause, never dreaming that the fiery writer is the headstrong young lady with whom he’s constantly clashing.
Things turn even more tangled as Augusta tries to stay one step ahead of scandal. But when Dunham discovers the truth, she reluctantly allows him to help her stop a ring of dastardly villains. It’s a dangerous gambit—and turns even more dangerous when their working together ignites passions that could destroy them both if their cunning enemy has his way.
Augusta hardly noticed the break in the music. She was enjoying a comfortable coze with Baron Ashford, one of her oldest friends from home and a name she hadn’t bothered to put on her list of suspects. He had already been most helpful, chattering on with only the slightest urging about several of their neighbors, but she dared not push too hard. Still, she had decided she could eliminate two of her suspects, while a third looked to merit closer scrutiny.
“Forgive me, Gus,” said Ashford. “I must excuse myself and find my next partner. Shall I escort you back to your Mama or your sister?”
“Thank you Jamie, but I am quite happy to sit here for a spell.”
He bent over her hand. “Can’t imagine why you choose to act like a turbaned matron and refuse to set foot on the floor.”
“I never dance. My bones are too creaky to climb down from the shelf, you know.”
They both smiled. Her unmarried state had become a joke between them. He had offered for her once, at the end of her first Season, though she had always felt it was more from loyalty than any deeper emotion. When she had gently but firmly refused, he had seemed rather relieved. Now he was more like the older brother she no longer had, and she much preferred it that way, since she would never have any more than sisterly feelings for him.
“I shall see you later, then.”
He withdrew into the crowd and Augusta took a moment to survey the room. Marianne was surrounded by a bevy of admirers, but there were no cause for concern. All were perfectly acceptable young men, so she felt free to turn her attention to the crush of people gathered in the soaring space. In the flickering light of the myriad candles, it was difficult to discern whether any of the other gentlemen she was interested in were present. Perhaps she could ask Jamie later—
“Lady Augusta.” The rise in tone indicated it was not the first time the gentleman had spoken her name.
Her head jerked around.
“I asked if I might be allowed the pleasure of this dance,” said Marcus.
She stared at him in disbelief. “You are asking me to dance? Aren’t you afraid I might tread on your toes or cause you to trip and split your pantaloons?”
He gave a low chuckle and her insides gave a small lurch. It was the first real smile she had seen on his face, and its effect was rather . . . devastating. “Ah, but this time I shall be on guard against any havoc you might wreak on my person.”
She forced her eyes away. “You needn’t bother. I never dance.”
Ignoring her assertion, he reached for her hand.
“G . . . go away.”
“Come now,” he murmured “I have come to know you are capable of a more scathing set down than that. Perhaps something that includes ‘pompous ass’ and ‘foul-mouthed twit’?”
Why, the man actually had a sense of humor! Her lips twitched in spite of her resolve to ignore him.
Suddenly, before Augusta quite knew how it had happened, she was on her feet, his hand firmly around her elbow.
“Now why does a pompous ass wish to dance with an idiot?” she asked softly as he guided her out onto the crowded floor.
He didn’t answer her. The first notes of a lilting melody drifted though the air, along with the faint scent of cut lilac and tuber roses. There was a rustle of silk as ladies turned to their partners and Augusta realized it was a waltz that was starting. She opened her mouth to protest, but the earl’s hand had already come to rest at the small of her back, drawing her close enough that she could feel the heat from his muscular thighs.
“Relax,” he murmured close to her ear. “Follow me and we shall manage to navigate these treacherous waters without sinking another couple or running aground on the platter of lobster patties.”
That he was an excellent dancer came as no surprise to her, for she had already noticed how he moved with a lithe masculine grace that exuded an undercurrent of coiled strength. That she matched his steps without effort was a bit more of a shock. Though accorded to have a natural rhythm herself, Augusta expected that nerves would deaden her limbs into awkward stiffness. But after the first few halting movements, she forgot all about being self-conscious, letting the music and his subtle touch sweep her along.
It was several moments before he spoke again.
“What?” Her eyes flew open in some embarrassment. She hadn’t even realized they had been shut.
The corners of his mouth curled upward. “I said, for someone who never dances, you are doing quite well.”
“Actually, what you mean is, you are relieved that I haven’t capsized you into the fountain, ruining yet another waistcoat.”
“Ah, but this one is watered silk.” There was a decided twinkle in his blue eyes.
A burble of laughter escaped her lips, then she quickly caught herself and composed her features into a more serious mien. Other ladies might find him irresistible, but she did not intend to be seduced by the Earl of Dunham’s charm.
“Now, why was it you forced me out her, sir?” she demanded, her voice a bit sharper than she intended.
“Force? I never force ladies to do anything,” he said softly.
“No? Do they simply fall on their knees begging . . . .” She broke off in some confusion, not exactly sure what she meant to say, and the color rose to her cheeks. To her vast relief, he merely regarded her intently for a moment, then addressed her original question.
“I feel beholden, as a gentleman, to offer you an apology. Two of them, that is. My language during our past . . . run-ins was inexcusable.”
She looked up at him. “It was. But I suppose it was greatly provoked. A gentleman of your stature does not take kindly to being knocked on his rump.”
It was his turn to laugh, though he made no attempt to stifle the rich baritone sound. “You should know, you have accomplished what no other man, not even Gentleman Jackson, has managed to do.”
“Set you down a peg? Someone should do it,” she muttered under her breath. “Seeing as you have a high enough opinion of yourself.”
He cocked his head to one side. “What was that?”
“Oh, never mind,” she said in a louder tone. “You may consider yourself forgiven, though I can’t fathom why it makes a whit of difference to you.”
His arm suddenly tightened around her waist and he quickened their steps, turning her in a series of intricate figures that left her a little breathless.
“It doesn’t,” he finally replied. “I care very little for what other people think. However, regardless of what you choose to believe, Lady Augusta, I wish you know that I regret my earlier rudeness. We seem to have gotten off on the wrong foot with each other, but it appears we are making some strides to reaching a common ground of civility.”
He was subtly clever in his choice of words, she had to give him that. It only made her feel more awkward and unpolished. “How is it you know my name?“
“Ah, that is right, we have not been introduced. Not formally.” He inclined his head a fraction. “Allow me to correct that. I am Marcus Leete—”
“I know very well who you are, Lord Dunham,” she muttered, more aware than she wished to be of the pressure of his gloved hand on small of her back, and the faint, woodsy aroma of his cologne.
“Do you?” His smile was half mocking . . .