The Unwiling Miss Watkin
Originally published as Utterly Devoted in August 2002 (ISBN 0-8217-7282-1, Zebra Regency Romance)
Electronic version 2011 by Regency Reads
Revised and reissued November 2016 by Edwards and Williams
Notorious rake Jareth Darby is back in London, and everyone is talking. That terrifies Eloise Watkin. What only a few know is that Jareth and Eloise had a secret romance years ago. When Jareth walked away, he took her heart with him. Now he claims to want her forgiveness. Never!
Tired of his self-imposed exile, Jareth wants only to return to the bosom of his family. They've agreed to receive him, if he can gain forgiveness from the lady he wronged. But as he tries to prove to Eloise he has changed, he discovers one thing that will never waiver-his love for her. When scandal once more threatens, can Jareth convince the unwilling Miss Watkin that she has tamed him, once and for all?
Uncommon Courtships. Forever Loves.
"Regina Scott tells a wonderful story of love overcoming obstacles and hearts learning to trust again." -- RT Book Reviews
"Readers will be UTTERLY DEVOTED to following Regina Scott's career as she makes the transition to longer novels that will allow her complex characters and detailed plots to shine." -- The Romance Reader Connection
Nominated for Rose Award for Best Regency of 2002 by Loves Romances
Recommended in The Ultimate Reading List as one of the best Regency romances of its decade.
The most scintillating topic of conversation at Almack's that spring night was Jareth Darby's reformation, and he knew it. As he strolled about London's famous ladies club for the first time in three years, the air was tainted with the breath of gossip. He could even catch snatches of it.
"Is that not . . . ?"
"It cannot be. Was he not . . . ?"
" . . . banished to Italy when he was caught . . ."
". . . and nearly shot in Lady Hendricks's boudoir, but now he . . ."
". . . is tame as a kitten, and that . . ."
"I cannot credit."
Jareth made a point of inclining his head in acknowledgement of the lady's doubt. The round-faced matron went as red as her carmine gown, and her equally round companion blanched whiter than the ostrich plumes in her tightly wound curls. Only a beckoning nod from his brother's wife nearby kept him from confirming their suspicions.
"You promised to behave," Eleanor murmured as he joined her and his older brother Justinian. She stood near one of the statues that dotted the walls at Almack's and it was a question as to which looked more elegant, his honey-haired sister-in-law with her well-molded gown of pistachio silk or the marble bust of Diana beside her.
"I am behaving," Jareth replied, then raised his quizzing glass to appreciate a particularly buxom young lady who was sauntering past.
On the contrary," Eleanor said, turning violet eyes on him with a look of amusement. "You seem intent on reminding everyone of your reputation."
"I fear he has precious little chance of doing otherwise here," his brother put in, standing straight and tall in his impeccable evening black. "Lady Cecelia Hendricks's disappearance from London still inspires sonnets."
Jareth snorted. "Do you poets have so little inspiration?"
"I could not say," Justinian replied with a wink. "I am a novelist, not a poet. And I remember that you were one of the few to encourage me to show my talents. Now if I can just get you to show less of yours, you may yet hope for a happy life."
Less of my talents? Jareth glanced about the room again. He knew very well which of his talents his brother wanted him to forego. Yet beauty, grace, and temptation were everywhere he looked. Tantalizing perfumes wafted past his nose. Infectious laughter tickled his ears. As he knew to his sorrow, it took remarkably little effort to get the ladies to smile at him, little more to get them in his bed.
But his brother was right that tonight, he must think of only one lady. His future, his best chance at happiness, lay in the hands of Miss Eloise Watkin. For her, he had exerted every effort to be charm itself tonight. He had brushed the blue velvet coat and trousers until their worn nature was neatly disguised. The color had been chosen to highlight the blue of his eyes. His cravat was elegantly tied, his shirt points starched. His wavy pale gold hair was pomaded in place, and he knew from experience that it glowed in the candlelight. Surely a smile, the meeting of gazes, a few tender sentiments and Miss Watkin would melt. Whatever it took, he would not leave tonight until she was convinced that he was utterly devoted.
If only she didn't laugh him out of the room.
He'd had been dreading the meeting ever since his brother had made his surprising offer. Even now, he could not quite believe Justinian had been so forgiving. The scene in the tavern on the Dover wharf where his brother had granted his request for an audience was deeply etched in his mind. The darkly paneled walls, smells of cheap ale, and cloying cloud of smoke had seemed part and parcel to the life he had been forced to live of late. Justinian, dressed in somber black as he was now, had looked the part of avenging angel.
Jareth had expected to grovel. After the embarrassment with Lady Hendricks, his brother hadn't questioned his decision to remove himself to Italy. Surely Jareth could only expect a frostier reception now that he wanted to return home.
But Justinian had mellowed. Where Jareth remembered him mostly as the stuffy, slightly scrawny and certainly shy scholar, now he stood regally. His thick blond hair showed streaks of gray, but that only made him look more distinguished. Instead of censuring Jareth, his brother greeted him as if he were the prodigal son, clasping his hand warmly and treating him to dinner in the private parlor while Justinian listened to his plans to repair his life.
"And it pleases you to work as a secretary to a Member of Parliament?" his brother had asked when he finished.
Jareth spread his hands. "It is honest work and a great deal more palatable than hiring myself out as a laborer."
"Then your inheritance is spent?"
"Every cent." Jareth met his brother's thoughtful gray gaze. "Italy is an expensive place, and until recently, my tastes were all too easy to indulge."
"And now you've changed?"
Jareth willed himself not to flinch. He had to appear certain, even if doubts plagued him. If he could not convince Justinian, he would not convince anyone. "Completely reformed," he promised. "I want only to regain some semblance of respect. Will you help me find a position?"
Justinian eyed him. "I think not."
His chest tightened. This first decent meal in weeks proved to him that he must win his brother over. It was reformation or starvation. Without Justinian's support, he could hardly approach a member of Society for work. He squared his shoulders to fight.
Before he could protest, his brother held up his hand. "Hear me out, Jareth. I knew you would tire one day of the bon vivant life. However, I cannot see you so humbled as to play lackey. You may charm the ladies, but you have ever been too vocal in your opinions where the gentlemen are concerned. At times I suspect Lord Hendricks attacked you not so much because you flirted with his wife as the fact that you took him to task over his treatment of her."
"When a man treats his carriage horse better than his wife," Jareth countered, "someone should call him on it."
"Very true, but I suspect the sentiment would carry greater weight from someone other than a renowned rake."
Jareth shook his head. "This is neither here nor there. The fact of the matter is that I have nothing. I must find gainful employment."
"Are you amenable to another suggestion?"
"Certainly, so long as it does not involve charity."
Justinian regarded him wryly. "So, your lusts have changed, but not your pride."
"Once a Darby, always a Darby," Jareth quipped. "You seem the only one not beset with the family vice of puffing ourselves up."
His brother smiled. "It was my wife Norrie who cured me. You shall learn one day, when you meet the right woman."
Jareth had merely returned his smile. Of the dozens of women he'd wooed, only one had ever piqued his pride, and he had never given her the opportunity to do so again.
"I know better than to offer you outright charity," Justinian continued. "I have something else in mind. What do you remember of Cheddar Cliffs?"
Jareth cocked his head. "Adam's personal retreat overlooking Cheddar Gorge?"
"Just so. It was Father's gift to his firstborn son."
"I remember. Alex and I used to say that it was small compensation for having to play the earl. Still if Father's strings were not attached, the estate would have been princely."
"Indeed. Unfortunately, since Adam died four years ago, I have had little time for it. He left a sizeable bequest to see place well run, but the caretaker is getting on in years and begging for a replacement. Would you like the position?"
Jareth grinned. Could it be this easy? He would not be able to participate in the London social scene year round, as he would have preferred, but Somerset was close enough to justify a week or two every few months. And with money provided for the upkeep of the estate, he could well live the life he dreamed of. "Would I? How soon shall I arrive?"
His brother held up his hand again. "Not so fast. There are still a few strings attached."
Jareth's smile faded. He should have known such an offer would carry a price. "What would you have me do?"
"Nothing onerous. I would simply like proof that your infamous past is over."
"Shall I swear on my life's blood?" Jareth asked. "Present witnesses to my transformation? Fall upon my knees?"
"A combination of the three, I suspect." His brother had the audacity to grin. "Norrie and I are agreed that the best way to set this scandal behind us is for you to gain forgiveness from the ladies you have wronged."
Jareth shrugged. "Child's play. I have never wronged a lady so there is nothing to forgive."
"I believe Society may see it otherwise. Miss Harding, for instance, still laments your loss."
"Two waltzes and a moonlit stroll should not be construed as a declaration."
"And what of the trouble with Lady Charlotte Lenington?"
"She fell from her horse while riding to hounds. I simply took her to the nearest establishment for assistance."
"Yet you cannot blame Lord Lenington for being miffed that his daughter spent the evening in the village tavern playing pennyloo with every worker there."
"Why should he be miffed? She won nearly every hand. Cleaned me out, in fact. I guarantee her father's standing increased among the local population."
"Did you also enhance the reputation of Miss Eloise Watkin?"
Jareth froze. "What do you know about Miss Watkin?"
His brother was watching him. "Very little, actually. Her name appeared among Adam's papers, of all things. Norrie thought you might have known her in Somerset."
Oh, he'd known her all right. He would never forget her. The humiliation of having to work for his supper was nothing compared to the humiliation he had suffered in front of her. Why couldn't his brother insist that he apologize to the young contessa in Italy or the fiery-haired opera singer in Naples? Why couldn't he court forgiveness from some willing widow at a London ball or country house party? He could have more easily found Queen Caroline a pardon than face Eloise Watkin again.
"Adam must have been mistaken," he told Justinian, reasoning that their oldest brother could not have known much about the affair or he would have insisted that Jareth marry the girl. At the time, he might have been willing, for she had been something like. But remembering the way they had parted ended any thought of reconciliation.
His brother refused to accept that. "Norrie is adamant, I fear. And as Miss Watkin is in London now, she made the list Norrie and I compiled. A dozen ladies in all. Gain forgiveness from each of them, and Cheddar Cliffs is yours."
Except for the inclusion of Miss Watkin, the task had sounded easy. Indeed, in the last fortnight he had smiled, sighed, bowed, and begged to the point that eleven of the twelve had granted him forgiveness. Tonight he put his skills to the test and faced Eloise.
Though he had been successful in avoiding her thus far, he could not avoid hearing about her as he had moved through London Society. She was rumored to be quite a beauty, which did not surprise him. It had been her beauty that had first attracted him to her five years ago.
She was also rumored to have distinguished herself in her first Season as a bit of a flirt. Again, that came as no surprise. She had always given as good as she got, and all with a wide-eyed look of innocence. The only thing that had surprised him was that she had reached her third Season without marrying. London gentlemen must have lost their senses since his precipitous exit from Society. In his many conquests before and since, he had yet to find a woman to equal Eloise.
They had met when she was attending the Barnsley School for Young Ladies, an endowed school situated on his family's estate near Wenwood. At first he had thought she was a young teacher, which had made her fair game in his book for a liaison. Only later had he discovered that she was far younger and far more ineligible to be the mistress of a rapscallion younger son.
Had things progressed beyond that first burst of lust, he might well have come to a different end. Only when they had been discovered in the hayloft of the school's stables had he been forced to walk away, by a student wielding a pitchfork, of all things. It was the most ignoble moment of his life.
He shook himself and attempted to focus on the present, allowing his gaze to roam the room. He had to gain Eloise's forgiveness, and quickly. He had bartered the last of his jewelry, all but the signet ring his father had given him, for a month's rent in a room in a corner of St. James's, and that time would soon be up. Justinian had offered him a place at Darby house, the family townhouse in London, but Jareth had fobbed him off with an excuse of needing his freedom. If he did not succeed in gaining Miss Watkin's forgiveness, he might well be forced to live on his brother's charity, and that thought was untenable. A Darby might fight, whore, or starve himself to death, but he would do so on his own terms.
But surely he needn't worry about Miss Watkin. He had been the one wounded by their affair. Discreet inquiries made to the school had proven to him that she'd been clever enough to hide their involvement. She had walked away unscathed. Surely she would not refuse to release him from any appearance of wrong doing. None of the other women had refused.
"There she is." Eleanor nodded toward the ballroom floor as Jareth felt his shoulders tense. "Miss Watkin just finished making her bows to Lady Jersey," she continued. "Look, there's Lord Nathaniel leading her onto the floor. You should be able to catch her when she completes the set."
Jareth gazed in the direction she indicated. At least twenty couples stood in the line, but he sighted Eloise easily. He caught his breath.
Her midnight hair was swept back from her oval face to fall in ringlets down her back. The high-waisted gown of emerald silk revealed the alabaster of her shoulders and neck and draped the curves of her body in graceful folds. He did not have to be closer to know that her eyes were a vivid shade of green, intriguingly slanted, and masked by lustrous black lashes. He could remember those eyes all too well-alight with pleasure, deep with passion.
He was more afraid of what those eyes would show now. Would he see anything but contempt once he mustered his courage and asked her pardon?