Ballrooms and Blackmail, Book 3 in the Lady Emily Capers
Published as an e-book original in September 2014
The toast of London is about to get burned. Priscilla Tate, most celebrated debutante of 1815 London, is well on her way to wringing a proposal out of the Season's most eligible bachelor, the Duke of Rottenford, when blackmail notes start arriving, threatening to expose a dark secret unless she ceases her pursuit. It's up to her friends, Lady Emily Southwell and Ariadne and Daphne Courdebas, to help her uncover the mastermind before disaster strikes. But will Nathan Kent, the duke's handsome personal secretary, no, no, the duke, understand if Priscilla's secret should be revealed?
"This story, filled with romance, mystery, and a touch of suspense, is another winner from author Regina Scott. Awesome!" The Huntress Reviews
"I'm having such a fun time reading through the Lady Emily Capers series by Regina Scott. Ballrooms and Blackmail is the third book in the series and an excellent addition! I know that when I pick up one of these books I am going to enjoy witty characters, a hint of danger, and an entertaining mystery all wrapped up in a clean regency romance. It is a great combination." Britt Reads Fiction
Miss Priscilla Tate was the toast of London. Men raised their quizzing glasses to follow her as she passed on her way to some fabulous event. Ladies whispered enviously behind their fans as she waltzed with the most eligible bachelor in the room. Princes hung on her every word.
That is, until she discovered a vile note in the pocket of her rose-colored satin pelisse and realized she was ruined.
She was certain she knew exactly how the note had come to reside in her pocket. Horrid things like that tended to happen when she was forced to spend any time with her childhood adversary, Acantha Dalrymple.
"It's quite clear to me," Acantha had said only that afternoon with her pointed nose in the air, "that His Grace the Duke of Rottenford prefers my company."
Oh, the odious creature! Priscilla could not fathom why her mother insisted on furthering their acquaintance with the Dalrymples. The family was wealthy, but they were rather new to Society, and their attitudes showed a definite lack of civility. Yet today's visit was the third time in a week Priscilla had had to endure sitting in the withdrawing room of the Dalrymples' fashionable town house while her mother and Acantha's sat across the room on an emerald velvet settee and giggled like girls.
The Green Salon, Mrs. Dalrymple called it with her considerably pudgier nose also in the air. To Priscilla's mind, it showed a singular lack of imagination to name a room after the color of its furnishings. Of course, it also showed a singular lack of imagination to decorate in one color to begin with.
And somehow Mrs. Dalrymple had managed to make a single color clash. Olive-striped satin draped the walls and was framed in lime green molding. Twining snakes of serpentine marble shot with gold crawled up the massive fireplace with its bronze insert. The polished wood floor was swathed in a costly Oriental carpet showing sea dragons cavorting over a foaming blue-green ocean. And the matching chairs on which Priscilla and Acantha sat were ebony inlaid with creamy jade.
Too bad the only thing green about Priscilla was her thick-lashed eyes and the jealousy she couldn't quite fend off at the sight of yet another new dress on Acantha's thin figure. Honestly, the girl had no idea how that luscious saffron muslin made her sallow skin more noticeable and sapped any shine from her lank brown hair. The open lace collar and trim on the short puffed sleeves only made her features look weaker.
The gown would have looked much better on Priscilla's considerable curves. But then, so would much of Acantha's lavish wardrobe.
"Have you no answer for me?" Acantha demanded. "I say the Duke of Rottenford prefers me to all others."
Not that she had seen. And certainly it was not what she had planned. But it was clear Acantha was intent on goading her, so she waved a languid hand. "You may be right. I fear the pressures of the Season have kept me entirely too busy to notice."
Acantha did not appear to believe her, for her dark eyes narrowed. "And why would you be so busy? It isn't as if you can afford all the requirements of a Season."
Was she determined to be cruel? Take deep breaths. Rise above the pettiness. Her cheeks might hurt from smiling, but she would never show it. "It's amazing what one can do with initiative."
Acantha's scowl deepened. "Have you nothing more to say for yourself? Truly, you can be the most provoking creature, Priscilla Tate. I begin to see why so few call upon you."
Oh! Priscilla would have liked nothing better than to stick out her tongue or tweak one of the curls Acantha insisted on arranging on either side of her long face. But such was not the act of a lady. A lady slayed her adversaries with her impeccable character, perfect manners.
And undeniable cunning.
She vented a sigh with a soft puff of air that failed to sway the golden curls from her face and smoothed down the skirts of her pink sprigged-muslin gown. "Yes, Mother and I had so hoped for a better turn out. With our family connections and fixture in Society, you would think I would garner more than six offers of marriage in the last week."
"Six!" Acantha sputtered as her gloved hands tightened into fists. "I do believe you're lying."
"No indeed. Ask my mother if you doubt me." Priscilla leaned back ever so slightly in the elegant black chair. She couldn't let her guard down for a moment around Acantha.
"Well," Acantha allowed, leaning back in her own chair as if in defeat, "I suppose that is a considerable number. I had no idea there were so many charitable men in London."
Priscilla stiffened. Why did Acantha continue to refer to their impoverished state? If the creature only knew one note, pray stop harping! This time she couldn't help her response.
"Apparently not enough." She eyed Acantha pointedly.
Acantha's skin turned an unbecoming shade of red. "I expect an offer of marriage any day. His Grace asked most specifically what I would be wearing to his masquerade on May Day. Why ask if he did not intend to seek me out?"
Perhaps to run as far and fast as possible in the opposite direction? But much as Priscilla would have liked to do the same thing, she remained in her seat, mind churning. A masquerade? On May Day? Why hadn't she received an invitation? She thought she'd been making excellent progress with His Grace.
Ever since her magical debut ball a week ago, he'd called on her twice, once to chat and once to take her driving. Such marked attention would have sent her over the moon in joy if he had spoken more than two words on either occasion and if he hadn't come with protection.
She could think of his entourage no other way. The Duke of Rottenford never went anywhere, it seemed, without his cousin the Honorable Miss Glynnis Fairtree and his personal secretary Mr. Nathan Kent. Miss Fairtree Priscilla could have managed, as she was quiet and pale and wouldn't have said boo to a goose. The young lady was clearly the poor relation, and it showed the depths of His Grace's kindness that he included her in all events. Mr. Kent, however, was a problem.
Mr. Kent was slender, with brown hair. He stood only a few inches taller than Priscilla did. His plain coats, though of good material, lacked the impeccable tailoring and conspicuous dash of the brighter coats His Grace favored for his tall, lean frame. Still, Mr. Kent somehow managed to stand with greater confidence and to converse with greater ease than any man Priscilla had ever met.
And he had quite the dreamiest eyes, dark and deep, eyes a girl could lose herself in. He gazed at her as if he could see her soul.
And found it rather lacking.
She had no doubt that if she'd failed to receive an invitation to His Grace's masquerade ball, it was all Mr. Kent's fault. He seemed to sense she'd set her cap for Rottenford despite the fact that she'd been careful not to show her intentions. And Mr. Kent didn't much like the idea that she might marry His Grace.
"So," Acantha said, shifting in her seat, the buttons on her gown squeaking against the jade, "what do you intend to wear to the masquerade?"
Priscilla couldn't very well admit she hadn't been invited. Yet. Imagine how Acantha would gloat then! She tossed her curls. "Oh, I haven't decided."
"Well, you better hurry," Acantha scolded. "It's only ten days away, you know. You'll want to look your best when His Grace announces his bride."
Priscilla shook her head. "I sincerely doubt His Grace would make so important an announcement at a public event."
Acantha's smile was knowing. "And I have it on good authority that he intends to do just that. Can you conceive of anything more romantic?" She sighed so gustily her dainty lace collar flipped up to meet her pointed chin.
It was rather romantic. A dark summer night, candles glowing, people dressed in mystery, never knowing what handsome gentleman held your hand. And it would be better still when His Grace stood up before two hundred of his closest friends and family and said, "It gives me great pleasure to introduce my bride, Miss Priscilla Tate." She was so lost in the vision that she didn't hear the rest of Acantha's conversation.
Which was only a blessing.
In fact, it wasn't until she had returned home and absently put her hand in the pocket of her pelisse that she learned her plans had been utterly destroyed.
And then she ran for help.
Nathan Kent set his top hat on his head and descended the steps of the town house with an unwelcome feeling of defeat. He glanced back with a frown. Lady Emily, the youngest daughter of the Duke of Emerson, seemed such a levelheaded young woman. He had been quite impressed by the way she'd regained her composure after the contretemps at her debut ball a week ago. Who would have thought her former fiancé, Lord Robert, would turn out to be a jewel thief? The ton was still reeling from the discovery. Between her personality and her place in Society, Lady Emily would have made an exceptional liaison for His Grace the Duke of Rottenford. A shame her interests obviously lay elsewhere.
He allowed himself a sigh. He was running out of suitable matches, which meant Miss Priscilla Tate was going to be a problem. Oh, there was no doubt she had the presence to make an excellent duchess. And no man alive could complain of her looks.
He supposed if he searched in Belgium or Flanders he might find a woman whose hair was as golden or possessed of such luster and vitality that it begged to be touched. It was possible some Irish lass might have eyes a more vibrant shade of green and capable of exuding the warmth that beckoned a man like a fire on a cold winter night. The women who had modeled for the classic Greek sculptors could have had figures that rivaled the one Miss Tate showed to advantage in her stylish gowns.
But somehow he doubted any other woman in England combined those traits with such cunning and will as he had seen in her. She had thrown her considerable armament against the wall of His Grace's bachelorhood, determined to capture the duke's affections. Nathan could not allow her to succeed.
He turned to the front again, his duty stiffening his spine, and found the very woman he'd been contemplating standing in his way. Nathan blinked.
Miss Tate blinked.
For a moment, he almost thought he was mistaken in her identity. Stripped away were the polished airs, the coy smiles. The color in her cheeks came from high emotion or exertion, not rouge. The downturn of those rosy lips spoke of dismay.
He put his hand to her elbow before he thought better of it. "Miss Tate. Is everything all right?"
He watched as the woman withdrew behind the mask. Her gaze brightened, her lips lifted, her lashes fluttered.
"Why, Mr. Kent, how nice to see you." She glanced pointedly around him as if he could have hidden his tall employer behind him. "Is His Grace with you?"
"Alas, no," Nathan replied, trying to recapture her gaze even as he dropped his hold of her. "Uneasy lies the head that wears that coronet."
Her smile was no more than polite. "Of course. I admire a man who takes his duty seriously."
Did she? Somehow, he doubted she would admire him for doing his duty, especially when that duty meant keeping His Grace away from fortune hunters like her.
He tipped his hat. "Then you will not mind if I return to mine. Good-day, Miss Tate."
She inclined her head. Had he been the duke, she would have dipped a curtsey with effortless grace and humility. As a mere personal secretary, he did not warrant such a response. Indeed, she turned from him so quickly it seemed he did not even warrant her attention. Given the tasks he needed to complete before returning to His Grace, Priscilla Tate did not warrant Nathan's attention either.
But as he reached the street, he could not help glancing back one last time. She had reached the door to the town house and lifted her hand to the brass knocker. Her back was straight, her head high. The pink satin pelisse was a mastery designed to outline her curves. She was the epitome of a fine London lady.
Yet the hand that reached for the knocker was trembling.
What had happened to so discompose the redoubtable Miss Tate? And why, when he was certain she was a clever fraud, did he feel compelled to help her?
See how our intrepid sleuth views England, in my article, Regency England through Lady Emily's Eyes.