Three enchanting short stories in a single 99¢ volume!
A Midsummer Night’s Disgrace
Eloisa revisits the scintillating world of the Essex Sisters with a story featuring a young lady, Cecilia Bellingworth, who has decided she would rather ruin her reputation than endure further speculation about whether her children will be “silly,” like her brother, Billy. After two failed seasons, Cecilia decides she will dress as she likes (in a scandalous red dress!) and flirt outrageously (with a scandalous pianist!). Fortunately, a gorgeous musician at the Duchess of Ormond’s house party presents the perfect candidate for scandal…
Previously published in the Essex Sisters Official Companion Guide (e only).
Elias Hempleworth-Gray has one thing and one thing only of value—his title, Earl of Leyton. Determined to leave England and the scandal of his gambler father behind, Elias hopes to turn his fortunes around and come back a respectable man to claim the only woman for him, Miss Penelope White. But Penny has other plans for the man she has loved all her life…plans that include a masquerade, a stolen kiss and a lost shoe.
Previously published in the Fairy Tale sampler (print only).
When she was sixteen, Miss Violet Leighton spent one blissful month romping around her family estate with Rothwell Talcott…thirty days of shared kisses, culminating in a very illicit afternoon in a berry patch. As Rothwell leaves for his grand tour, he gives his word of honor that he will return for her. Four years and seven refused proposals later, Violet is about to give up and marry when he finally returns. Now the Duke of Cambridge, Rothwell wants to make her his duchess. But how can Violet trust the man who stole her virtue—and then broke her heart?
Previously published in The Ugly Duchess (print only).
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Enjoy an Excerpt
A Midsummer Night’s Disgrace
A Brand-New Story in the Essex Sisters World
June 21, 1819
A House Party, Kent
Seat of the Duke of Ormond
“I don’t understand what I did wrong,” Lady Bellingworth moaned, wringing her hands. “You had the best governesses money could buy, and I took you to church often, and certainly every Easter!”
“You did your best, Mama,” Cecilia replied. She spun in place, causing her new gown to swirl around her feet. “Isn’t it beautiful?”
The gown was better described by what it wasn’t: it wasn’t white, demure, or ruffled. It didn’t have the new gathered sleeves; in fact, it didn’t have any sleeves. There wasn’t much of a bodice either.
A fold of strawberry-colored silk wound around Cecilia’s bosom and draped over her arms. Rather than following the line of her narrow skirts—made from a darker shade—the transparent overskirt clung to her hips before belling out around her toes. A row of embroidered strawberries around the hem weighted the overskirt so it swirled around her as she moved, emphasizing her curves.
And she had them.
Cecilia considered her curves to be her best feature, with golden hair the color of old guineas a close second.
Coaxed into tight ringlets by a curling iron, her hair took on an oddly metallic gleam. But tonight her maid had styled it in a frothy pile of natural curls, stuck about with ruby-tipped hairpins.
“What are you wearing on your feet?” her mother cried, sounding rather like a kettle coming to boil.
Cecilia lifted her skirts and looked happily at her toes. “New shoes.”
Lady Bellingworth turned purple. “Those are your great-aunt Margaret’s diamond buckles!”
Her shoes were made of strawberry silk embroidered in a silver crosshatch pattern that went splendidly with diamond buckles. But the pièce de résistance was her heels. They were covered in strawberry-colored silk and guaranteed to catch the eye.
Generally speaking, ladies drifted around the ballroom in soft slippers, just as Cecilia had throughout the season. But she had carefully planned—in collusion with a brilliant modiste—to change her appearance from head to toe.
In the past two seasons, she had dutifully worn white (which didn’t suit her), sat demurely at the sides of ballrooms (which didn’t suit her), and smiled rather than spoke (which really didn’t suit her).
But she had arrived at the Duchess of Ormond’s house party this afternoon without a single white gown in her baggage. When a Bellingworth decides to change her appearance, she doesn’t hold back.
She was not going to drift around the ballroom: she would sway, and her hips would sway right along with her.
“You won’t be able to dance in those shoes,” her mother moaned.
“I shan’t need to dance,” Cecilia said, adroitly avoiding the issue, because in her opinion, the shoes turned a simple country dance step into an invitation. “The duchess announced a musical evening, remember, Mama? By the way, if we don’t go down to the ballroom immediately, we shall be late for the concert.”
Lady Bellingworth was slumped against the high back of the settee, hand over her heart. “I feel ill, positively ill. I cannot believe that my daughter is so lost to impropriety that she would consider wearing this … this costume better suited to the demimonde than a house party given by one of my oldest friends.”
“If I were one of those ladies,” Cecilia pointed out, “I would take off this corset, which is horribly uncomfortable.”
“Do you think to find a husband this way?” her mother demanded. “To entice a gentleman to wed you because your gown is small enough to cram into his pocket?”
“Marriage would be desirable outcome, don’t you think?” Cecilia asked. “My second season as a wallflower was more than enough.”
She was tired of being ignored, tired of sitting at the side of the room watching other girls curtsying. She was tired of pity dances with male relatives, and whispered advice from girls younger than she was.
She had an idea that gentlemen didn’t bother to look very closely at the rows of debutantes, because every young lady was dressed precisely the same. Swathed in white and trained to docility, they were no more distinct than one sheep in a flock.
“I know why you’re doing this,” her mother said, reaching up to pull Cecilia down onto the settee at her side. Her eyes had turned misty. “It’s because of that dreadful nickname, isn’t it? It’s because poor James is called ‘Silly Billy.’ It’s all my fault! There must have been something I could have done.”
There was no question but that Cecilia’s failure on the marriage market was wrapped up with the cruel, persistent jest about her brother, Lord Bellingworth, who had been dropped on his head as a baby. No one believed the truth about his injury. They thought that the Bellingworth blood was tainted and her babies would be silly as well.
She had a respectable dowry, excellent lineage, and even better teeth. She had shining hair, a slender waist, and slightly larger breasts than were normal for a young lady. But her second season had just drawn to a close, and she had had no suitors, not even one.
“It’s all just so foolish,” her mother continued, mopping her eyes. “Poor James was perfectly normal until he suffered that terrible blow. Perfectly normal!”
“There’s nothing you could have done, Mama,” Cecilia said, wrapping her arm around her mother. “You have no control over the fools who rule the so-called Beau Monde. Darlington and his ilk.”
“Charles Darlington didn’t create that despicable nickname. It came from a horrid fellow known as Eliot Thurman, who was part of his circle a few years ago.”
“I’ve heard as much,” Cecilia said absently. She caught sight of her gown in the dressing table mirror and eased her bodice a bit lower, tugging down that blasted corset while she was at it.
It was French and hoisted her breasts in the air like a gift, but it was deucedly uncomfortable.
Luckily, her mother didn’t notice what she was doing. “Thurman dropped out of society, and then of course, Darlington married Lady Griselda …”
Lady Bellingworth kept talking and talking until Cecilia finally intervened. “I think that people are fools to pay attention to people like Darlington. He published that fictional memoir about Josie’s husband, the Earl of Mayne, after all. Josie says the earl doesn’t mind, but I think it was rude.”
“I know Josie, I mean the Countess of Mayne, is one of your closest friends, darling, but you should also remember that Lady Griselda is married to Darlington, and she is something of a stepmother to Lady Mayne,” her mother said, tracing the twisty paths of society connections. “Besides, I like Darlington. He’s apologized to me a hundred times, if not more, for having brought Thurman into society.”
“Thurman may have invented ‘Silly Billy,’ but it took a whole herd of simpletons to repeat it over and over, turning my brother into a pariah.”
“I am not defending Thurman,” her mother said. “I loathe the man. Someone told me that he’d been shipped off to the Antipodes, though I don’t know how accurate the rumor is.”
“Mama, if we don’t go downstairs, we’ll be late,” Cecilia said again, drawing her mother to her feet. She picked up a wisp of silk tulle and wound it around her shoulders.
“You’re not pretending that scrap of fabric is a shawl!”
Cecilia put on an innocent expression. “Whatever can you mean? Madame Rocque fashioned it specifically for this gown.”
“I recognize that look, you know,” her mother said suddenly. “You had the same expression when you stole out of the house at twelve years old and begged that violin player to take you with him to Vienna.” Her mother shuddered. “I’ve never forgotten the horror of it.”
All Cecilia remembered was the disappointment. The violin player in question was Franz Clement, one of the best violinists in the world. Her attempt to persuade him to take her with him, back to Europe, had been the only time in her life, before this, that she had attempted to live life on her own terms.
She had failed, and in retrospect, she had to agree that the whole idea had been mad. Clement allowed her to play a Beethoven adagio and then promptly escorted her back to their London townhouse. “She’d be good enough if she were male,” he had told her mother.
“She’s a lady!” her mother had retorted, in pure horror.
“Precisely,” Clement had said, bowed, and left.
Now Cecilia turned to her mother. “I’m not threatening to run away from home this time, Mama. I’ve done nothing more outrageous than commission new gowns.”
“I suppose we have no choice at this point,” her mother said, as tragically as any Cleopatra. “I might as well face the humiliation now, as wait for London.”
“It can’t be more humiliating than having a wallflower as a daughter,” Cecilia pointed out.
“Oh, how little you know of the world,” her mother said grimly.
By the time they descended the stairs, the concert was about to begin. The butler opened the door to Lady Ormond’s ballroom with a whispered admonishment.
The first thing Cecilia noticed as they slipped into the room, temporarily transformed by rows of gilt chairs lined up before an improvised stage, was that the gentlemen attending the house party were conspicuous by their absence.
True, it was only the first day of the party, so not all the guests had arrived. Yet her friend Josie was sitting alone, with no sign of her husband, the Earl of Mayne. There wasn’t a man to be seen anywhere, not even the Duchess of Ormond’s son, Thaddeus Phinston, the fifth duke.
Ormond had just returned after spending years abroad. If Cecilia had to guess where he was, she’d guess he was out in the garden with an insect net.
From the time she was eight years old, Thaddeus—or Theo, as he used to insist on being called—had taken great delight in dropping various bugs down her bodices. Thank God, he had finally been packed off to university and then on a grand tour. The memories still made her shudder.
“Darling,” her mother said, “look, the duchess is waving at us. There are seats beside her in the front row.”
“We risk being joined by that horrid son of hers,” Cecilia whispered.
“His Grace may have changed over the years,” her mother replied. But her voice was uncertain. Undoubtedly she had clear memories of spanking the future duke after he arrived for tea with a grasshopper, which somehow jumped down Cecilia’s dress.
Cecilia had responded with a buttered crumpet, which hit the heir to the dukedom squarely in the forehead. The look on his face was still one of Cecilia’s fondest memories. But the idea of meeting a grown-up version of that rascal made her shudder.
Instead of parading to the front, they slipped into seats next to Josie, who turned with a warm smile and pressed Cecilia’s hand. Then she blinked and her smile grew even wider. “You visited my modiste!” she said with clear delight.
Cecilia kissed her cheek. “Thanks to you!” she whispered. “What’s more …” She hitched up her skirts to her ankles.
“You must—must—give me the name of your shoemaker immediately!” Josie gasped, her eyes gleaming.
Cecilia laughed before turning toward the front, as the musicians were poised to begin.
The Duchess of Ormond had assembled a largish ensemble for a mere country house party but, of course, she was famous for her love of music. The ensemble began playing the Piano Concerto no. 13 in C Major by Wolfgang Mozart.
Ho-hum. She loved Mozart, but not this particular concerto.
Cecilia watched a plump man play the cello for a while. He was holding his right arm too high.
Then she realized that the pianist was outrageously good-looking, with long eyelashes and a rakish lock of dark hair over his forehead. He met her eyes over the top of his instrument and she looked away, suddenly flustered.
She whipped open her fan and assessed his every inch from behind its shelter. A black coat stretched over muscular shoulders. A deliciously strong chin. Long legs. And his eyelashes …
Why couldn’t English gentlemen look like him? Horrid Theo had been a stubby piglet as a boy and had undoubtedly grown into a stubby little duke. It was so unfair, given that this delicious musician was utterly ineligible.
In every way.
She dropped her fan a trifle, just enough so that the pianist could see her smile if he wished.
Apparently he did wish, because his dark eyes went straight to her mouth, and something eased in his expression before he turned to nod, bringing in the three violins.
“You’re flirting!” Josie whispered next to her, sounding rather delighted.
“I am not …” Cecilia lost track of her sentence. She had never given much thought past the moment when she would dazzle a whole ballroom by wearing a scandalous gown and flashing her ankles now and then.
Her transformation had been a way to thumb her nose at the gentlemen who had refused to dance with Silly Billy’s sister. She wanted to stand out, secretly hopeful that a man would miraculously emerge from the crowd, one brave enough to overlook the nonsense about her brother.
But suddenly the conjunction of Mozart and a handsome pianist gave her a truly outrageous thought.
If she created a scandal—a true scandal—she would become unmarriageable in polite society. Her mother would necessarily have to give up the fruitless pursuit of a gentleman who might overlook the question of her tainted blood.
She would be sent off to her father’s country estate in disgrace. Her brother lived there already, cheerfully feeding his pet hens and going around the estate in a pony cart. She adored James; in her opinion, the world would be a far better place if people were so “silly” as to find joy in every day, whether the sun shone or the rain fell.
She wouldn’t have to waste any more time making morning calls and sitting at the edges of ballrooms while music was played by mediocre musicians. She could spend her days playing her pianoforte, or perfecting her ability to play the harp.
Once ruined, she could hire a violin tutor. After she turned fourteen, her mother dismissed her tutor, since she considered the instrument inherently improper.
“You lift your arms in such a way that your chest is emphasized,” her mother had explained. “Perhaps for some women that would be unremarkable, but clearly you have inherited your grandmother’s bosom.”
A ruined woman could play the violin all day long, and no one could command her otherwise. She could help James tend his chickens and make certain no one took advantage of him. Her mother could give up the painful business of trying to launch her wallflower daughter on the marriage mart and just enjoy herself in London with her friends.
It was the answer to all her problems.
To be precise: that pianist was the answer.
Being (most inconveniently) a virgin who had never even been kissed, Cecilia was uncertain about her ability to seduce a gentleman. But the hardheaded part of her knew quite well that a paid musician would be unable to refuse the advances of a young lady if she made a direct set at him.
There was nothing more scandalous than flirting with a servant. Everyone knew the story of Juliet Fallesbury, who was presumably living happily in Pennsylvania with a footman named Longfellow.
The details of the affaire, of course, were remembered not because of Juliet (a tiresome girl who always seemed to be giggling), but because of the footman’s name. Thanks to extensive research in a naughty book Cecilia found in the library, she had deciphered the innuendo that made Juliet’s elopement so infamous.
It would be wonderful if she could find a footman with a lewd moniker. But one can hardly ask a butler if any of the servants were named Woodcock. Or Maypole.
The musician was ready to hand, so to speak. What’s more, the Duchess of Ormond loved music as much as Cecilia did. That meant these musicians were quite likely staying in the house.
By the time the first movement, the allegro, drew to a close, her mind was made up.