In Scandal They Wed Page 1

Prologue

London, 1850

The screaming had stopped. A blessing and a curse.

Evie watched the wan, young girl collapse back upon the bed, shaking from her ordeal. She was free of the worst of the pain, but now the terrible eventuality that Evie had dreaded these past months was upon them.

An eerie silence held—the sort of silence one absorbs in the midst of a great storm, moments before nature recalls itself and breaks loose her full fury again.

Evie shivered, her skin rippling to gooseflesh. On her voyage home from Barbados, the ship had been struck with one such storm, and she recalled thinking the worst was over in the sudden fall of stillness. She’d been wrong. And she knew better than to think the storm had passed now—it was just beginning.

Seated at the edge of the bed, the midwife worked, chafing her large, square hands over the small bundle she held.

“Is it . . .” Linnie strained for a glimpse of her child.

At last, the babe released a lusty squall. At the glorious sound, Evie breathed her first even breath since her half sister began the arduous task of bringing her bastard into the world—had it been only yesterday? In all truth, it was Evie’s first even breath since she’d been sacked and returned home to find her sister compromised.

Evie folded her sister’s delicate fingers into her own, hoping she might inject strength into the slight girl.

For the worst was yet to come.

“You did so well.” Evie pressed a quick kiss to Linnie’s sweat-soaked brow.

Turning to the midwife, Evie saw that she struggled to lift her heavy girth from the bed. Grasping the woman’s arm, Evie assisted her to her feet, wincing at the twinge in her side. Inhaling sharply, she fought the discomfort—fought harder the memory of how she had acquired the injury. Six months past and her employer’s vicious attack that had prompted her dismissal still troubled her. Broken ribs, she was learning, took time to heal.

Shaking off the memory, bleakness entered her heart as the midwife handed the mewling bundle to her waiting stepmother. Dressed in a pink day gown with yellow trim, Georgianna was sorely out of place in the squalid surroundings of their rented room.

“She’ll be fine then? I need her up and about as soon as possible.” The tight lines on either side of Georgianna’s mouth told Evie that she had not softened her stance.

The midwife shook her head in Linnie’s direction. “It took a toll on ’er. Yer girl is small and the babe a big ’un.”

Georgianna waved a hand in dismissal, still not glancing at her grandchild. “So long as she’ll heal. We’ve plans for her.”

Yes. Evie knew her stepmother’s plans. She’d heard of little else since the day Linnie was born. Even as a child, she understood that her stepmother pinned all her hopes and dreams on her daughter. Linnie’s beauty and grace would raise them from modest gentility to the privileged ranks of High Society. Needless to say, just as her plans failed to include Evie, they did not include a ruined daughter. Or bastard grandchild.

“I trust your discretion.” Georgianna pulled a pouch of coins from the folds of her skirts. “You may go now.”

The midwife frowned, glancing darkly at Evie. “Ye’ve a lick of sense to ye. Send for me if the bleeding does not—”

“You’ve already given your instructions,” Georgianna broke in. “Now go.”

With a noisy sniff, the midwife gathered her things and opened the bedroom door. Papa stood in the hall outside. As the midwife strode past, he stepped inside. “Well. We’ve that over with then?”

As if it were no more than a messy chore.

“Here, Henry.” Georgianna thrust the child into Papa’s arms and gave her skirts a little shake, as if holding her grandchild had somehow spoiled her ensemble. “Take him. You remember the address, I trust.”

Linnie sagged back against the bed, her weariness slurring her speech. “I have a son. . . .”

“It’s of no account,” her mother snapped before returning her gaze to Papa. “Henry, get rid of it.”

It. A sick taste filled Evie’s mouth.

“Drop him at the foundling home, and for God’s sake, don’t let anyone see your face.”

“No,” Linnie protested, fighting to rise on her elbows. “I want to keep—”

“Silence!” Georgianna’s face mottled with rage. “We’ve already decided what’s to be done. I won’t have you ruin yourself, Linnie! Do you understand me?”

Linnie fell back, silent sobs shaking her body.

Evie’s heart beat a hard, desperate rhythm in her chest as Papa turned to go. Her hands curled into fists, her nails cutting into her palms. This was wrong. She thought of Penwich—all the lonely, forgotten children. The cold winters. The food that never seemed enough . . . and they had not even been orphans, simply forgotten children. What would Linnie’s child endure at a foundling home? Would he even survive?

Lurching forward, she grabbed her father’s sleeve. “Papa, please. Don’t.”

She had said those words before. When he’d sent her away to Penwich’s. They had failed to sway him then.

Her father stiffened. She knew he resented being dragged into this. He spent his days buried in his cards and brandy, hiding from his family and leaving matters to his wife. That was how Evie ended up dumped at Penwich’s at the age of twelve.

“Look at him,” Evie pleaded. “He’s your grandson.”

His gaze dragged down.

“Henry,” Georgianna warned in caustic tones. “Don’t even consider it.”

Evie watched, hope filling her chest as her father’s expression changed, loosening, lightened.

“We can’t do it!” Georgianna hissed. “It will ruin us! All of us, not just Linnie. An unwed mother is as good as a whore—”

“What if his mother were wed?” Evie quickly inserted before Papa could be swayed back to his wife’s side.

“How is that possible?” Georgianna spit out. “Daft girl, everyone knows Linnie couldn’t possibly have married—”

“Me,” Evie blurted, pounding a hand to her chest. “What about me?”

“Yes!” Linnie struggled back up on her elbows. “Evie just returned from Barbados. No one knows she was forced to return home after that wretched man attacked her. She could say she met someone and married there, and returned to be with her family after his death—”

“Absurd. Who would believe such a tale?” Georgianna huffed and crossed her arms over her chest. “And why would we go to so much trouble when we could just dump the baby at—”

“Because he’s our grandson,” Papa broke in, his voice solid, firm in a way that Evie had never heard before.

Georgianna blinked. “Henry, what are you saying?”

“It can work. Evelyn can raise the child. As a widow.” Over her stepmother’s sputtering, Papa handed Evie the squirming bundle, whispering near her ear, “Remember, you chose this.”

Evie nodded, a lump forming in her throat as she gazed down at the child she had just claimed.

He stilled in her arms. It seemed that his liquid dark gaze found her, settling on her face with a curious intensity. Almost as though he recognized her.

“Well, this is idiotic! If the truth should ever come to light, we shall all fall from grace . . . especially you, Evelyn. You can never slip. No one can even suspect the truth!”

Evie touched the baby’s cheek with the tip of her finger, wondering if she had ever felt anything so soft, so pure. “I know what I’m doing,” she murmured. Or rather, she hoped.

For everyone’s sake, she hoped.

Chapter 1

CRIMEA, 1854

Spencer Lockhart charged down the valley, leaving his regiment behind and hurtling toward the spot where he’d last glimpsed his cousin a moment before his line had disappeared in a volley of fire.

He vaulted from his mount, his throat thick in a way that had nothing to do with the cannon smoke filling his mouth and congesting the air.

The moment he hit the ground, a booming blast rent the air behind him. He ducked as chunks of earth, debris, and other matter he dared not consider showered over him. Artillery shells rained from the sky. His stallion screamed and dropped, shuddering on the ground. The creature’s eyes rolled, wild with pain.

Spencer lifted the pistol and fired a round directly into his head. He forced back the tide of grief that threatened to cripple him. Later. There would be time enough later to grieve for the stallion that had carried him through the last years. Time enough if he survived.

Jaw clenched, he scanned the ground thick with bodies and horses until he found Ian. Jumping over soldiers, Spencer crouched near his cousin, using a fallen horse as a shield, all the while assuming he was no better than the rest of his decimated brigade—fodder for the Russian riflemen picking them off at every side.

“Ian!” He slid an arm beneath his cousin.

Ian fixed a glassy stare upon him. He opened his mouth to speak but instead coughed. Blood flew from his lips in a violent spray. Words finally came, a thick, desperate gurgle in the back of his throat. “Spencer! Find her . . . find my child. Make it right.”

He spoke as though he were already gone from this world.

“Shut up,” Spencer ground out, emotion clogging his throat. He ducked his head at a sudden whistling on the air. Another ball landed nearby, shaking the earth, spraying dirt and debris.

When he lifted his head, blood obscured one eye. His forehead stung. He wiped his face and hauled his cousin closer.

“We’re getting out of here.” His fingers clenched Ian’s shoulder. “You’re going home.” Then he added another lie—this one harder to spit past his lips. “Linnie’s waiting for you. You’re going home to marry her.”

His throat thickened with emotion. He knew no such thing to be true, but he had to say it. It was the right thing to say . . . anything to give his cousin hope. To keep him clinging to life.

“You think so?”

“Absolutely. She loves you.”

Ian jerked his head side to side. “I left her. I’m just like Cullen and Frederick. I don’t deserve her. I should have married her . . . should have given my child my name.”

“You couldn’t—”

Ian seized Spencer’s hand, brought it close to his chest in a grip of surprising strength.

Spencer squinted at him through the burn of smoke.

“Find her,” Ian rasped. “And my child. See to them, Spencer. Protect them.”

Spencer nodded.

Ian continued, his voice a hard bite on the air, “I’ll have your word on it, Spencer.”

“You have it.” Over their clasped hands, Spencer glanced down at the blood spreading steadily over his cousin’s chest. An ever-blossoming puddle, so deep a red it appeared black.

In this, the truth stared at him. It seemed wrong to pretend anymore. Ian was not long for this world.

He squeezed their clasped hands. “I will treat your child as my own. I pledge this to you.”

Ian sagged back against the earth, seeming to find peace in Spencer’s words. There was no point in reminding him that his Linnie had not responded to his many letters. That she had clearly given up on Ian long ago.

“That’s good. Very good.” Ian’s gaze drifted up, as if he could see something through all the smoke and artillery fire. “Tell her I loved her. With my last breath, I thought of her.”

Something soft brushed Spencer’s hand. Glancing down, he saw that Ian had pushed a scrap of linen into his hand. The handkerchief initialed EC that he always carried with him.

Grasping it in his hand, Spencer studied it for a moment before looking back down. Into green eyes so like his own, only as lifeless as glass now.

“Ian!” he whispered, then again and again as pain rolled over him. Louder and louder, until the sound of his voice merged, lost with the roaring wind of battle.

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