It Started with a Scandal

By: Julie Anne Long

Chapter 1

“IN LIGHT OF YOUR . . . circumstances . . . Mrs. Fountain, I’m certain you’re aware that it is a bit unusual for you to be granted an interview at all. But this is an exceptional . . . situation . . . and the Redmond family did put in a good word.”

So many words requiring delicate choosing and pillowing with little silences. Circumstances. Situation.

Withstanding all of them the way she had for years, Elise gritted her teeth. “I understand,” she said somberly.

“ . . . that is not to say that you could not satisfactorily perform the duties, and I should hope you would not be influenced by Mrs. Gordon, whose temperament proved unequal to the job . . .”

Mrs. Gordon must have been the sobbing woman Elise had passed as she’d come up the walk. Mrs. Gordon had been carrying a valise and muttering “heartless bastard” viciously under her breath.

“ . . . because the successful candidate will possess a clear head and a mature outlook . . . ,” Mrs. Winthrop continued. She paused briefly in her torrent of words to narrow her eyes at Elise.

Elise had donned her most severe gown and ruthlessly pinned her hair motionless with approximately three hundred pins. She nodded, serenely confident that she looked mature and that nothing as frivolous as a curl would escape.

And she kept her fingers laced tightly in her lap, as if this alone could keep her nerves from shattering. It had at least disguised the trembling.

Would that she’d managed to keep her stays laced just that tightly six years ago.

Alas, spilt milk, and all of that.

“ . . . and as you know, I’m employed by the Earl of Ardmay, and they have volunteered me to undertake the selection process as a special favor to their family . . .”

Mrs. Winthrop had not ceased speaking since Elise arrived fifteen minutes ago.

“ . . . and as for the current staff, there will be no steward or butler, as this is a relatively small household and the tenant is temporary. So you would head the small entire staff, which is comprised of—­”

Something unmistakably large and glass, hurled from a considerable distance with considerable force, exploded into thousands of jingling fragments.

Both women froze.

It was exactly what Elise expected her nerves would sound like when they finally shattered.

In the stunned silence that followed, the rain hurled itself at the window like a warning. Get out! Get out while you can!

Ah, if only she’d a choice.

Mrs. Winthrop cleared her throat at last. “He likely won’t ever aim at you. All the same, there’s naught wrong with his arm and it’s best to be well clear of him if you think he might be in a throwing mood.”

Elise hoped this was black humor. How on earth to respond? She glanced down at her bloodless knuckles as if they were crystal balls. No help there.

She decided to nod sagely.

“I understand they’re blessedly rare. The throwing moods,” Mrs. Winthrop expounded.

“And we must always count our blessings.”

It emerged more quickly and dryly than Elise intended.

In other words: More herself than she had intended.

This she knew, because Mrs. Winthrop’s eyebrows launched like birds flushed from shrubbery.

She eyed Elise sharply for a moment.

Elise held her breath.

Then Mrs. Winthrop smiled a vanishingly swift smile. It was like a cinder thrown off a distant campfire, when Elise had been lost in the metaphorical dark woods for weeks.

“All right then, Mrs. Fountain, I should be pleased to introduce you to his lordship, Lord Lavay, who is a prince of the House of Bourbon. If he’s . . . amenable.”

THE LOQUACIOUS MRS. Winthrop went curiously silent as she led Elise through a labyrinth of Alder House’s too-­dark hallways. The candles hadn’t been trimmed; a few were fitfully, smokily, burning in their sconces. Elise frowned. The house was handsome enough, but in the rooms they swiftly passed, the fires burned low or not at all. She surreptitiously dragged a fingertip along the top of the wainscoting; she could feel dust cake it.

She saw no evidence of the rumored household staff.

They scaled a flight of marble stairs with a smooth, modest banister, and Mrs. Winthrop finally paused on the threshold of what appeared to be a study.

It was as dark and soft as a cave, but a huge leaping fire picked out glints from around the room, and Elise’s eyes tracked them reflexively: the polished legs on a plumply upholstered settee and a pair of gorgeous chairs, the inlay on a small round table, the gilt on a framed map and the stand of a handsome globe, an empty crystal decanter, a tiny bottle of Sydenham’s Laudanum on a sideboard, only half full.

She stopped when she reached the mirrorlike toes of a pair of Hessians by the hearth.

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