Three Schemes and a Scandal (The Writing Girls #3.5) by Maya Rodale

Part One

HASTINGS’S FOLLY

London, 1825

Prelude to a Scheme …

Lady Charlotte had promised: No More Schemes. Under pain of banishment to the country for the remainder of the season, as per the instructions of her beloved brother, the Duke of Hamilton and Brandon, Charlotte had solemnly vowed not to undertake any matchmaking, tempt fate, alter one’s destiny or in any way meddle with the course of the universe.

Her pet fox, Penelope, would enjoy the banishment. While Charlotte found trouble wherever she went, she did so prefer London trouble. What twenty-year-old debutante would not?

In spite of Charlotte’s best intentions, her last attempt to encourage true love (not force, as Brandon had said in his long, devastating lecture) had resulted in kidnapping, arson and thousands of pounds of damage to London’s docks. Charlotte had not foreseen such unintended consequences. But really, who would?

She had even made a note for next time (Note to oneself: Be wary of explosions and other people’s nefarious intentions). But there was to be no next time. She had promised.

Except …

There was the matter of Miss Lucy Fletcher. Particularly, Miss Fletcher’s marital prospects, which may have been dim and which were absolutely may have been Charlotte’s fault.

She never should have encouraged Lucy to purchase that horrid bonnet which the milliner had named Swan Lake because of the soft array of white plumage, shimmering blue satin ribbon and mock swan head, which curved around and arched above the brim of the bonnet. Two shiny black buttons for eyes. An orange silk beak. It was startlingly realistic.

Charlotte never should have suggested it would be just the thing to wear with Lucy’s traditional white gown for the king’s Swan Day celebration in Hyde Park.

It was fortunate that Charlotte had brought her parasol to beat back the swarm of angry birds that had developed an unfortunate fascination with Lucy. Charlotte risked her liberty in defense of her friend. (Killing a swan was punishable by imprisonment and death!) The so-called gentlemen about that day—the despicable Lord Dudley and his loathsome friends—laughed until they were red in the face. The other women shrieked, their cries nearly indistinguishable from the swans.

The cartoons in the newspapers were hysterical horrible.

Ever since, suitors were not exactly lining up to court the girl infamously known as Lucy Feathers and Swan Lucy.

Not that anyone would blame her for it, but it was Charlotte’s fault for lying and telling Lucy the atrocious swan bonnet was rather fetching. Her heart impelled her to make amends.

It wouldn’t do to have a perfectly lovely girl become a shriveled spinster because the bland encouragement of her friend led her into the fashion disaster of 1825.

Besides, Charlotte had the perfect remedy for Lucy’s marital predicament. A scheme. And a man.

Lord Hastings’s Garden Party to Commemorate His New Folly

James Beauchamp really wanted to be elsewhere. Perhaps back on the continent, from where he had returned after an extended tour (five years instead of the typical one). Perhaps back in bed with Lola, as he’d been this morning, last night and yesterday afternoon. Perhaps out at his modest country estate, enjoying the rush of a fox hunt, the thrill of galloping his stallion across the fields or simply a long stroll without the stuffiness of his jacket and cravat.

Instead he was stuck at this loathsome garden party to celebrate a folly. Not only would he have to give a speech later, at exactly four o’clock, about the significance of the useless structure his father had designed, but he was stuck socializing as The Dutiful Son while Gideon, The Favored Son, was securing world peace at the European courts.

James maintained a conversation with Lady Something Or Other, who was past her prime yet did not behave as such. She was throwing herself at him, as women were wont to do.

“Mr. Beauchamp, James. You don’t mind if I call you James, do you?” She purred this at him, slinking one finger along the arm of his jacket. He resisted a shudder.

“Your scar, James, is just so…dashing,” she cooed. The damned scar…the women loved it so he really couldn’t complain. But they would not think it so dashing if they knew the true source of that fine slash that graced his left cheek.

“Tell me, James, how did you suffer such an injury?”

James pushed his fingers through his hair and adopted a grave expression.

“A broken shard of glass wielded by a madman who had escaped from Bedlam. I was defending a blind, eight-year-old girl from his murderous clutches,” James said. It was a lie. The stories were always outrageous falsehoods. The truth could not be spoken aloud.

Lady Whatever sighed and clasped her bosom. He could have her, if he wanted.

Across the ballroom, James set his sights on Lady Charlotte Brandon. He hadn’t seen her in an age. He discovered now that she had become beautiful. Dark hair, alabaster skin, a wicked smile on her red lips. He wondered if she was still the same troublesome, maddening minx.

He did not intend to find out.

The Terrace

As always, Charlotte enlisted the assistance of her dearest friend, Miss Harriet Dawkins. The two young ladies—one tall and dark haired, the other short and freckled—linked arms and strolled across Lord Hastings’s terrace en route to the lemonade table. Presently guests were milling about, enjoying refreshments and gossip.

Charlotte overheard Lord and Lady Capulet avidly recounting the dramatic construction and redecoration of their new library. Lady Layton flirted shamelessly with Lord Beaverbrook while her husband stood nearby, admiring a topiary.

Swan Lucy stood with her mother, talking to other matrons and their wallflower daughters. Soon, Swan Lucy would be married to the dashing James Beauchamp and she’d have Charlotte to thank for it. One day, years later, they would name their firstborn daughter Charlotte in gratitude to the enterprising young miss who brought them together.

But first, the scheme …

“Is everything ready, Harriet?” Charlotte asked in a hushed, conspiratorial whisper. Then she smiled a smile that suggested she was nothing but an innocent young lady happily attending a garden party.

“I have the key in my reticule. But please, remind me how this is supposed to work?” Harriet asked in a nervous voice. If Charlotte possessed nerves of steel, Harriet’s were constructed of delicate gossamer strung from a violet on a dewy morning.

Charlotte did not reply. They had reached the refreshments table, which was crowded with guests who might overhear and attempt to stop her Noble Efforts at True Love.

Instead, Charlotte ladled two glasses of lemonade, taking care for her new dress—a fetching cream-colored muslin with delicate lace cap sleeves, daringly cut low in the front and the back. The bodice was adorned with more lace, handmade by fallen women residing in a convent in Belgium.

Darling as it was, white dresses were such a bother. When she was married she would always wear dark colors, which were far better suited for sneaking out at midnight.

Presumably.

Having obtained their lemonades, they slipped away to a private corner of the terrace. Charlotte took a sip and explained the day’s scheduled events:

“To start, a footman will approach James at three o’clock about a problem at the folly that requires his immediate attention.”

“What is the problem?” Harriet asked, blinking, perplexed.

“There is no problem. Which means it will take him forever to find it, affording us more time to enact the second aspect.” Charlotte smiled wickedly.

“Then what happens?”

“We casually mention to Swan Lucy that James has gone off to the folly for a private preview with a select group. And then we invite her to join us. Of course she’ll say yes,” Charlotte explained. “Anyone would.”

“Who is the select group?” Harriet asked.

“You, me and Lucy.”

“That is incredibly select,” Harriet remarked. “Shouldn’t we have a chaperone?”

“We’ll all chaperone each other,” Charlotte replied, although the whole point was to allow James and Lucy unchaperoned time together. One could not possibly fall in love with a dowager or giggling friend looking over her shoulder. “Next, once we are inside the folly, you and I shall slip off and lock them in. Then they will proceed to fall in love. Or something.”

For some unusual reason the prospect of James falling in love with Lucy elicited a fleeting pang of angst. Nothing to call the doctor about, though. Charlotte ignored it. Her nerves were those of steel, coated in iron and bolstered by stone.

Charlotte spied James across the terrace. He was deep in conversation with Lady Whitmore, who was an exceedingly merry widow. Charlotte wondered if they …

No, no she didn’t. She was going to play Cupid and fix him up with her friend who would otherwise die a spinster because of Charlotte’s dreadful fashion advice. She didn’t wonder anything about him and she especially did not wonder about kissing him or anything of the sort.

In 1817 she had banished him from her heart forevermore.

Presently, however, she did suffer another pang. Of longing? Of jealousy? Of a fatal heart ailment?

“How long?” Harriet asked.

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