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My guardian has recently passed on and his wife has run off with her lover. Luckily for me I’m a grown woman of twenty-four and no longer need anyone to take care of me. I’m ready to take control of my own life and besides, I already have a man who wants to marry me. I’m pretty sure of it.
My uncle has passed away, and my father the duke and I must settle his estate. I think it will be a tiresome but easy enough process… until my father informs me that I am to take over my uncle’s guardianship of Penelope Martin. I’m an unmarried man, certainly I’m not suitable to be her guardian. I don’t want to be. I’m searching, albeit unsuccessfully, for a woman to be my future duchess. My excuses do not change my father’s decision.
Unfortunately, my father and I have discovered some very important items are missing from my uncle’s estate. Stolen, to put it bluntly. One missing item has the potential to destroy my family. Perhaps Penelope can help us, unless she took the item herself. If she did not, then who did?
Publisher’s Note: This historical romance is intended for adults only. It contains elements of suspense, danger, romance, discipline of an adult woman and explicit scenes. If any of these offend you, please do not purchase.
London, England, 1834
“Father, how can you do this to me?”
Penelope Martin pressed her ear against the library door and prayed none of the servants came by and asked what she was doing. She was snooping, something not done in proper houses, or at least according to her late guardian’s wife, Mary. But of course, Mary had absconded with her lover and half the household silver a week after her husband’s death, so what did she know about good manners?
“Emmett, you are my first-born son, the heir to my title.” Penelope closed her eyes and thought about the man she’d been introduced to at Chester’s funeral. His brother, George Sway, the Duke of Wilshire. He looked much like Chester, tall and dark headed. But his son had not been there. Or had he? She’d been numb, shaken after the death of the man who had treated her so kindly.
“Do you understand what I’m saying?”
Damn, while she’d been daydreaming she’d missed something.
“I don’t know why I have to become her guardian,” the man called Emmett said. “I’m not married. It would be inappropriate for me to shepherd around an unmarried woman.”
Oh, she heard that. He was so right, and she fought the urge to break into the library and voice her opinion. She was twenty-four years old, after all. She didn’t need a guardian anymore.
“Emmett, I want you to read this letter.” There was the rustling of paper, and Penelope wanted to go and look over the man’s shoulder, so she could read it too.
“It’s from Aunt Mary,” Emmett said. “Why should we trust what she has to say? She ran away with her lover.”
“Just read it,” the older man said.
Things were quiet for a few moments.
“Damn you uncle, for sticking me with your problems.” His voice was full of anger, and Penelope moved away from the door.
“Father, you take her on as your ward,” Emmett said. “I cannot.”
“You can, and you will,” the duke said. “Your mother and I are leaving for a tour of the continent. I expect you to care for the girl, and arrange a suitable marriage for her while I’m gone. I understand someone is courting her. Marry her off as soon as possible. Your Uncle Chester had a friend, some widow who lives in the country. He mentioned her to me several times. Get hold of her and ask her to come be the girl’s chaperone. As I understand it, this woman and Chester were quite good friends.”
“They were lovers?” Emmett asked.
If they were, this was the first Penelope had heard about it. As far as she knew, Chester had always been faithful to Mary.
“I haven’t a clue, I know nothing of Chester’s private life,” the duke said. “But send a letter by hand tonight. The sooner she gets here the better. All you will need to do is find out who is courting the girl, arrange a marriage and bide your time until the deed can be done. This friend of Chester’s can take care of the girl until then. Offer her a good sum of money to come as soon as possible.”
That made Penelope’s blood boil. She was not a piece of meat to be traded at market.
“What do we know about this girl?” Emmett asked.
“She’s a pretty little thing,” his father said.
Penelope shook her fist at the door, even though he couldn’t see her.
“That’s what I should tell potential husbands?” Emmett snorted. “Some may be interested, but they’ll want to know about money.”
“I understand Chester left her a sum to come to her upon her marriage,” the duke said. “You’ll have to contact the solicitor to find out the amount. Plus, she’s well educated, and can hold a conversation. She’s not one of those shop for gowns and lie abed until a party type girls.”
“A smart girl can be a problem,” Emmett said. “I don’t want to foist her off onto one of my friends if she’s going to cause troubles for him.”
“Foist this,” Penelope whispered as she stuck her tongue out at the door. What an arrogant ass. She wouldn’t want to marry one of his friends if they acted like him. Besides, she had that situation covered.
“Her father was tutor to Chester’s daughters,” the duke said. He sounded as if he were speaking around a mouthful of food. “When her father died, Chester took her as his ward. She’s been here for quite some time, I believe.”
Heavy footsteps sounded through the hallway and Penelope panicked. She could not be found here, eavesdropping. There was a doorway across from the library, which led to a staircase to the first floor. She opened it and stepped inside, wondering if she should go to her room and keep out of sight, or if she should wait and see what would happen next.
She decided to wait.
A knock on the door, and then the voice of Albert, the butler. Once he was bid to enter he left the door open, bless his soul. Penelope could hear everything. “Sir, there is something of concern that I believe requires your attention upstairs.”
“We already know Mary took a great many things,” the duke said. “What else could be wrong?”
“Please sir, upstairs if you will,” Albert said. “I hate to bother you with this, but I believe it needs to be brought to your attention.”
“Very well,” the duke said.
There was the rattling of dishes, and Penelope was sure they were setting down teacups, from the wonderful tea that Mrs. Havisham, the cook, had laid out for them. When they were gone, Penelope would go in and help herself. She hoped her new guardian had left the letter. She wanted to see what was being said about her.
The footsteps exited the room and headed for the stairs. She heard them as they headed for the first floor, then she exited the servants’ stairwell and inched into the library.
She saw the tea tray and her stomach grumbled. She quickly poured herself a cup and loaded a plate with tiny cakes and sandwiches. After she’d finished the first round she loaded herself up again, and then looked around the table. Yes, there it was, the letter.
She picked it up and scoffed. She had no trouble figuring out who the writer was even though it wasn’t signed. Only a woman had such flowery handwriting. But then again, a man could have enlisted a woman’s help in writing the letter, so as not to be associated with the news inside. It was hardly news a gentleman should be writing.
I feel it is my unfortunate duty to inform you that your new ward, Penelope Martin, is behaving in a most scandalous way. I realize that Miss Martin was your brother’s ward, and that, with his death, has become your responsibility. But I wonder, kind sir, if you know how she is behaving.
Miss Martin, as you may or may not know, is four and twenty now, with no prospects for a husband in sight. Of course, with no money but what your brother, well, now you, would settle on her, finding a husband will not be easy. However, she seems to not care about a husband, and only about spreading her favors around unsuspecting members of society.
Penelope’s mouth opened in shock. Spreading her favors. She was a virgin for heaven’s sake. How dare Mary lie about her? She took a sip of tea, and continued to read.
As you know, Miss Martin had resided with your now deceased brother, Chester. However, as I understand it, he allowed her to run wild. She visits gaming halls which are less than reputable, and I understand she has taken a lover, a man named Bixley who owns a furnishings outfit in Portobello. He has been seen leaving your brother’s house at seven in the morning, with a definite spring in his step, if you understand my words.
Penelope crumpled the edge of the paper and shook her head. How could Mary spread such lies? What would her new guardian think of her? She’d never been to a gaming hall in her life, and she’d certainly never spread her legs for Bixley.
It pains me, sir, to bring this information to your attention. But, I fear, if something is not done, the good name of Sway will suffer miserably. I am sorry, good sir, to have to impart such horrible news, but I do think you need to know the truth. My sympathies on the death of your brother.
There was no signature, nor any direction as to where the letter had come from. Penelope read it again. It was obvious it had been written after Chester died. Why had Mary done it after she’d run off? Penelope thought about it for a moment, and then something horrid took hold of her stomach and twisted.
Chester had been dead for two weeks. The duke, his brother, had arrived just days after the death to take care of the funeral and other business arrangements. Where had he been before then? How had the letter found him before he got to London? There was only one answer, and it hurt Penelope to her core.
Someone had written, and sent, the letter before Chester died, knowing he would be gone from this world. That could mean only one thing.
Mary had planned her husband’s death. She hated to jump to conclusions, but there could be no other answer. She read it through one more time, then folded it back up and put it in her pocket. But as soon as the missive was there she knew that wasn’t the right thing to do. She didn’t want them to know she’d read the letter. She put it back where she’d found it, then took her teacup and plate of food and headed for the stairwell where she’d hidden before. She would finish her tea, and wait to see what they had to say when they came back.
She didn’t have to wait long. She heard footsteps and then the closing of the door. She waited until she was sure Albert was gone, then went back to see if she could glean any information about why he had called them upstairs.
“Did you eat all the cakes?” Penelope put her hand over her mouth to smother a laugh.
“Surely not, Father,” Emmett said. “I can ring for more, if you like.”
“No, I don’t need to be eating anymore,” he said. “I understand the cook is making lamb for dinner, and I want to save room. Now, where were we?”
“We were talking about the chit, but I think we need to change the subject to the missing items.”
Missing items? Penelope frowned. What was missing?
“Should we search Miss Martin’s room?”
Penelope stepped back from the door. First Mary called her a whore, and now Emmett Sway thought she was a thief. What was missing? She tried to remember the items from upstairs. The silver and most of the valuables were on the ground floor. The first floor held bedrooms on one side, and Chester’s library and Mary’s sitting room on the next. They already knew Mary had taken her jewelry when she’d left. She’d drafted a note that said she was going to the country to rid herself of the grief caused by her husband’s death.
But Albert could ever be counted upon. He had seen Mary kissing Clark Weston, the young clerk from the lending library. They had gotten into the carriage and left. Albert had gone upstairs to find Mary’s jewels gone. And, of course, he told the duke as soon as he could.
“How do we know the books are not something Mary took?” the duke asked. “They are valuable, true, but would Miss Martin know that? I don’t think Chester talked about them with everyone.”
“Father, maybe she has Mary’s jewels, too,” Emmett said. “We should look.”
“I won’t brand the girl a thief,” the duke said. But there was a pause, and Penelope thought maybe he was reconsidering.
“However, perhaps we should do an inventory of the house, to see what else is missing,” the duke said. “I’ll leave that to your care.”
“Another thing for me to do,” Emmett said. “Thank you for that.”
“It’s not as if you have anything else to do,” the duke said. “Both your brothers are married and setting up their own lives, something you’ve avoided for some time.”
“You also need to meet the man who is courting her and see what sort he is,” the duke said.
A heavy sigh came from the room.
“Can’t I be tasked with finding Mary and getting her jewelry back?”
“The baubles are hers,” the duke said. “Who cares if she took them?”
“What if she took family heirlooms?” Emmett asked.
“I don’t care about jewelry,” the duke said. “I want the girl taken off our hands. As soon as possible.”
“And what of the books?”
“That is why we need to do an inventory,” the duke said. “Starting tomorrow. I will be leaving in the morning. Penelope has taken her meals in her room since we arrived. The only time we saw her was at the funeral, where she was clothed in what seemed to be widow’s weeds.”
There was a silence. “Do you think she and Chester were lovers?” Emmett asked.
“Certainly not,” the duke said. “Now, send a maid to her and tell her I require her presence at tonight’s meal. Tell her it is not an invitation but an order.”
There was the rustling of boots, and Penelope went back to her hiding spot, but this time she rushed up the stairs. There was so much going on now. She would wait for the maid, and then she would go to the library and see what was missing.
Then she would find out where the items went. There was no way she would be branded a thief.
She hurried to her room, slipped off her shoes and lay down, fully clothed, and pretended to be asleep. The knock on the door came quicker than she’d expected.
“Miss? It’s Clara.”
“Come,” Penelope said.
Clara shut the door behind her. “The duke requires your presence at dinner. He said to tell you it wasn’t a request.”
“So, my new master has spoken,” she said. “How pleasant.”
“I believe he has been very generous with you,” Clara said.
Penelope wanted to ask her if she would speak that way to one of Chester’s daughters, who came into town for the funeral and left the next day.
“I’ll lay out the lavender dress, shall I?”
“Thank you, Clara, that will be fine,” Penelope said. “Then I’ll like some time to myself before I face the man who will decide my future.”
“As you wish.” Penelope watched as the maid took the dress from the wardrobe. She draped it across a chair and then tsked in disappointment. “I’ll just take it downstairs and prepare it for tonight. That way you’ll have your privacy.”
She left with the dress in her arms and Penelope rushed to the door and listened. She hated that she was becoming adept at listening at doorways, but such things were necessary for her to find out what was happening. After all, it was her life, wasn’t it?
Once in the library her gaze was immediately drawn to the bookcase in the center of the room. The middle shelf, which held books from the time of Henry VIII, was empty.
Penelope’s mouth hung open. There had been six volumes there, carefully wrapped in cloth to keep them clean. The two bronze bookends, of the king himself, were still there. Who would have taken the books? They were valuable, but they would have to be sold to the right place, and they could be traced back to Chester’s household.
To Penelope’s point of view, that meant Mary would not have taken them with her. It would be dangerous to sell them because they were family heirlooms. That was obvious, since the duke and his son had been summoned upstairs to observe they were missing. Unless there was something else that was gone. How many things had Mary taken? She knew about the jewels, but the books?
Penelope sat down on a chair and tried to work through what she knew. Her father had always taught her that thinking things through was the only way to get to the bottom of a puzzle. If something baffled you, you needed to lay out the facts. If you thought long enough and hard enough, you would get to the bottom of the things.
That meant she needed to go back to her room, take out a sheet of paper and take up her quill. She exited the room slowly. She didn’t want anyone to see her, in case they would think she took the books.
Once she was at her desk, with her inkbottle open and ready, she couldn’t think of one thing to put on the page. What was she looking at, really? She had a few things she needed to figure out before she jumped to conclusions. Sure, the jewels were missing, but that didn’t mean anything, really. They belonged to Mary, as gifts from her husband.
Thinking about Mary made Penelope’s heart lurch just a little. She had always considered Mary a friend, since they were so close in age.
They laughed together, went to plays, went shopping. It was Mary who had told Penelope, in great detail, what went on between a woman and a man behind closed doors. Penelope had been shocked, at first, but after Mary had described the pleasure that came from the act, Penelope had been intrigued. That very night Penelope had allowed Andrew Bixley to kiss her.
And it had been quite pleasurable. She’d only allowed the one kiss; any more than that would be inappropriate. But a few days later, Mary had hosted a dinner party and invited the salesman. Chester had retired early, after they’d sat down to play cards. After a few rounds, when the other guests had left, Mary had taken Treva Reeves up to the library to show her—Penelope gasped as memory flooded her. She’d forgotten about why Mary and Treva had gone upstairs, because she’d been so shocked by Andrew Bixley’s actions after that. The minute the ladies left the room he’d pulled Penelope from her chair and kissed her, not once but three times. Then he’d tried to touch her breasts. She’d pushed him away and hadn’t allowed herself to spend time alone with him since then, despite his attempts at parties, and invitations to ride in the park, or go for tea.
It wasn’t because she didn’t like him. It was because she was frightened. Despite Mary’s assurances that contact between a man and woman was pleasurable, Penelope wasn’t sure she was ready to give herself to a man, despite her age. Now that the house was in mourning she wouldn’t be able to see him. Would he wait a year? Did she dare try to sneak a message to him? She would think about that later.
But right now, she needed to think about the books. Mary had taken Treva Reeves to the library to show them off. Penelope went into the library quite often to choose a book, but she couldn’t remember if the books had been there when she’d gone in after Mary and Treva’s visit.
She closed her eyes and tried to imagine the shelves the last time she was there, which was just days before Chester’s death. She couldn’t remember, which seemed strange since she noticed them so quickly today.
“That’s because you were looking for something out of order,” she said to herself.
She put her quill in ink and wrote down, “Missing books. When did they go missing?”
Under that she wrote, “Letter. How did Chester’s brother receive the letter so quickly? Or did he? Need to find out when letter was delivered, and where. Who would want to slander me in this manner?”
She tapped her quill against the paper, leaving an ugly ink stain. She put down the quill and picked up her shaker, scattering pounce on the page to help dry the ink. After it sat for a few moments she picked it up and shook the excess onto the floor.
The last thing she wanted was for her new guardian to find this paper. If he thought she was suspicious about Chester’s death, or the missing books, things would not be good. She didn’t know the man, though. Maybe he had the same concerns. But she didn’t trust him enough to ask him.
She carefully put the paper in her desk, under her journal. Then, at the last minute, she took it back out, folded it in half and slipped it into her book of daily writings. Her father had taught her to put her thoughts down on paper. He told her it would do her good to have an account of things that happened, and her feelings about them.
She’d been very careful about recording things every day. But she’d not once gone back and read what she’d written.
Some of the things were very upsetting, like when she’d written about her father’s death, and Chester’s passing. She didn’t want to think about what she’d written those days. At one point, she’d thought about destroying the journal. But then she’d thought about her father, and how he’d urged her to keep it, and she’d stayed her hand when she thought to throw it onto the fire.
Her brow furrowed as a thought crossed her mind. What if Chester had kept such a journal? What would his words tell her about the few days before he had died? Had he suspected anything? If he did keep such writings, where would they be? In his private library, or in his bedroom? She’d never been in either place, which were connected and located on the second floor, one story above her room.
A knock on the door disturbed her thoughts.
“Come in,” she said.
Clara came inside, carefully holding the lavender dress.
“Do you think that’s appropriate?” Penelope asked. “After all, I’m supposed to be in mourning.”
“The gentlemen are not in black,” Clara said as she put the dress on the bed. “No offense, miss, but he wasn’t your father. I think it would be good for you to put your best foot forward, so to speak.”
Penelope wasn’t so sure, but she decided she didn’t want to argue. She put her arms out and waited while Clara helped her undress and then put on the beautiful lavender dress, which was one of Penelope’s favorites.
“How are things downstairs?” Penelope asked as Clara worked on her hair.
“Subdued,” Clara said. “I understand the men have spent most of the time in the downstairs library, talking about things that need to be done.”
Clara was silent, but the pause was pregnant, and Penelope thought the maid wanted to say something else.
“And?” she prompted.
“Well, I don’t want to spread gossip, but I understand they are going to do a search of the house, to take note of things that are there.”
And things that are missing, Penelope thought.
“Is something wrong?”
“Not that I know of, miss,” Clara said. “Now, don’t you look beautiful? I have to tell you the duke’s son is quite handsome. What I wouldn’t give to be of a station that he would consider for his wife.”
“Neither of us are,” Penelope said. She thought of Andrew Bixley, and how his lips had felt on hers, and how she’d shaken when he’d tried to feel her breasts.
“Clara, if I write a letter to Mr. Bixley, could you see that it is delivered?”
“Yes, miss,” Clara said. “When would that be?”
“Tonight,” Penelope said. “I will have it for you in the morning.”
The letter would let Andrew know that Penelope was thinking about him. Hopefully he was doing the same with her.