Authors: Kelly Boyce
AN INVITATION TO SCANDAL
THE SINS & SCANDALS SERIES
Three gentleman friends are forced into marriages in recompense for their past sins and scandals. One must marry for redemption, the other for money, and the last for honor.
AN INVITATION TO SCANDAL
Nicholas Sheridan, Viscount Roxton – can the wicked aristocrat ever atone for his sins?
Infamous for his wickedness, Nicholas Sheridan, Viscount Roxton, must pay the price after his sinful actions lead to the death of one of his peers. Guilt forces him to change his scandalous ways and seek redemption through marriage to a proper lady.
Miss Abigail Laytham – will the headstrong beauty be able to forgive?
Miss Abigail Laytham is determined to avenge her beloved uncle’s death and make the man responsible pay, even if that man is her former beau, Viscount Roxton.
“Oh that horrid man! It is so unfair he, of all people, can still show his face in polite society after what he has done.”
Miss Abigail Laytham gave the oars of the small rowboat a hard pull, sending the vessel in the opposite direction from the loathsome monster. Perhaps she and Caelie should not have come to Hyde Park, but it was such a beautiful sunny day, and while most people might prefer to stay indoors away from the late June heat, Abigail had always hated being confined.
Despite the ton’s newfound aversion to their presence, she refused to cower like a mouse in some dark corner of her home.
In truth, with the Season all but at an end, she had hoped the city would have thinned by now, its inhabitants departed for their country estates. A luxury her family could no longer afford.
“I am certain he has as much right to be here as we do,” her cousin said, her quiet voice interrupting Abigail’s thoughts.
She pursed her lips. Caelie maintained a most charitable nature, but even she must find it difficult to turn the other cheek where Lord Roxton was concerned.
“The man destroyed our family’s reputation,” Abigail said, as if her cousin needed the reminder. As if she hadn’t noticed she had been left fatherless due to Viscount Roxton’s callous actions.
Caelie offered up a sad smile. “I cannot dwell on the past, Abby. I am afraid if I do I will fall into a deep, dark hole and never find my way out. It is better to leave the past where it belongs and move forward as best we can.” But in Abigail’s estimation, Caelie had already fallen, and darkness had swallowed her bright light.
Abigail did not share her cousin’s sanguine reasoning. She had loved her uncle. He had been the only family member willing to take her and her older brother in after fever had taken her Papa and younger brother and left her mother in a weakened state. Lord Glenmore had raised her and Benedict like they were his own and she would be forever grateful. He had not deserved such an end. Nor did her family deserve to suffer because of it. Eight months had passed and still the wound rubbed raw.
No, some crimes were unforgivable. And Lord Roxton had committed his fair share of them, yet paid for none. A travesty that gnawed at her bones.
Abigail took a deep breath and pulled on the oars once more. The muscles across her back strained with the effort. What had possessed her to take one of the boats out? She had wanted to protect Caelie from the stares and whispers that still followed them wherever they went, but surely they could have found a secluded path to walk instead. Perspiration beaded her brow and the moisture from the Serpentine caused her perfectly tamed curls to frizz. She really had not thought this out well.
Caelie’s swift intake of breath captured her attention. “I believe he is coming this way.”
Abigail looked at the rowboat in the distance. It was indeed moving in their direction. “The man’s audacity knows no bounds. For all the length of the Serpentine, he has to row near us?”
“I am sure it is unintentional, Abby. Perhaps it is time we returned home, anyway.” What Caelie truly meant went unspoken. Despite having arrived before the fashionable hour, the position of the late afternoon sun told Abigail they had overstayed their welcome. The park had become crowded and Caelie did not care to be seen. Or pointed at. Or whispered about. Abigail couldn’t blame her.
She watched Lord Roxton’s gradual approach, a serpent slithering through the water toward its prey. Granted he was more handsome than most serpents, with his shock of thick black hair and perfectly chiseled features.
Anger fueled her strength and she pulled on the oars, leading them toward the shore. The distance was disconcerting. She hadn’t realized she’d rowed so far out. The other boat gained on them, Lord Roxton’s slow, steady movements much more effective than her shorter, choppier ones. Did he not realize they were there? Or was he so caught up in seducing his latest conquest, sitting at the opposite end of his boat, that he lost track of those around him?
Abigail looked about. Within moments he would be upon them. She had nowhere to hide, unless she planned on jumping into the Serpentine. Which she didn’t. It would mean leaving Caelie behind, and she would never desert her friend.
Well, she would not give him the satisfaction of acknowledging his presence. She would snub him as polite society now did her family. She would—
The oar jerked in its mooring as she slapped the water with it. The sudden movement yanked it from her grip with a swift jolt that reverberated up her arm. She grasped at the handle, too late. The oar slipped out of her reach.
Caelie’s concerned gaze swept from the drifting oar to Abigail, then back again, her bonnet blocking all but the profile of her straight nose and generous mouth—a mouth now pulled into a tight line of distress. One fiery lock of hair had escaped its confines and bounced gently in the morning breeze.
“This is not good, Abby.”
Abigail winced. Her poor cousin had become a recluse after the despicable Lord Billingsworth, a horrid snake perhaps as wicked as Roxton, cried off their engagement shortly after the scandal over Abigail’s father broke. They could have sought damages—Abigail wished they had—but Caelie had begged them not to and Aunt Edythe had, for once, agreed with her daughter. Aunt Edythe didn’t want any more attention, and Caelie had been too broken-hearted on all fronts to try and hold onto a man whose affections were obviously not fully engaged.
“Do not worry,” Abigail said. It had taken a Herculean effort on Abigail’s part to convince Caelie to come out for the afternoon. She had promised it would be a quiet, leisurely outing. How wrong she had been. She would find a way out of this. She just needed a minute to think. To come up with a plan. To…to…
She reached for the oar. It floated beyond the tips of her fingers.
Abigail ignored her cousin’s admonishment. There was no time. She turned her attention to the remaining oar. “Help me get this loose. I can use it to retrieve the other one before it floats beyond our reach.”
From the corner of her eye she could see Lord Roxton’s boat drawing nearer. He had rowed close enough she could discern the well-tailored cut of his expensive clothing. Nothing but the best for Lord Roxton. While her family had to count every last shilling and hope it stretched far enough to accommodate their needs. A feat which became more and more impossible with her uncle’s creditors banging on their door.
She and Caelie freed the remaining oar and Abigail reached out again.
Likely Lord Roxton would find great humor in their current predicament. The man had no conscience whatsoever. However had she been so foolish as to have once thought him worthy of her consideration? Perhaps it was for the best he’d changed his mind and dropped his suit without so much as a by your leave.
The small rowboat rocked and pitched at a precarious angle as she stretched over the side, working to retrieve the oar. Abigail stabbed at the water with the extended oar, creating enough waves to send its mate further out of reach.
“This is not good,” she muttered, echoing Caelie’s earlier assessment.
“Do you require assistance?”
Lord Roxton’s voice carried across the water, abrading Abigail with its masculine confidence and false sincerity. Such mockery. He did not care a fig about their dilemma. He was merely trying to impress the simpering miss in his boat, hiding beneath her parasol. She wondered what doxy he cavorted with this day? An actress? A young widow of low repute? Maybe the infamous Madame St. Augustine herself even. Not that she cared. She didn’t. Not even a little.
“No, I do not need your assistance,” Abigail bit out. She kept her gaze averted, refusing to give him the satisfaction of looking his way.
She threw her arm out in one last vain attempt to retrieve the wayward oar. The boat dipped beneath her weight. She swallowed a scream as cold water rushed up to greet her. Her arm smacked against the oar she had been reaching for with bone-cracking force. Pain shot through her forearm, but the sensation paled in comparison to the humiliation that slapped her pride when she sputtered to the surface and found Lord Roxton not ten feet away.
“Abby!” Caelie leaned against the side of the still teetering boat, her hands gripping the edge. With both oars now in the water, her cousin was left adrift.
“Miss Laytham, are you injured?”
Abigail treaded water, keeping her back to Lord Roxton. How she despised the sound of her name on his gilded tongue. “I am perfectly fine, thank you. Please, do not trouble yourself.”
Although she was rather troubled. How exactly did she intend on getting herself back into the boat without capsizing it and sending Caelie into the water with her?
Caelie obviously shared her thoughts, concern dipping her eyebrows downward. “Can you touch bottom?”
Abigail held onto one of the oars to help keep her head above water and stretched her foot as far as it would go. Nothing but more water.
“No, I’m afraid not.”
Lord Roxton reached a hand toward her. “Swim over and take my hand. I will pull you up.”
The man could not leave well enough alone.
“Do you honestly believe I would accept your assistance?”
“Do you have another choice?”
Had he smirked? The nerve!
“I would rather stay here until the lake dries up. Or until…until…” She huffed out a breath. The cold water froze her brain, preventing her from coming up with the perfect set down. “Oh! There is simply no scenario where your assistance would be wanted, required, or solicited. Go away.”
Abigail lifted one hand from the water and swiped a handful of soaked curls away from her face. What a mess she must be. This was beyond mortifying!
She glanced at his rowing companion, sitting with her back straight and her cream colored day dress perfectly unwrinkled. The woman shifted her parasol to block the sun at her back.
Shock rendered Abigail mute.
This was no actress or courtesan. Abigail had heard the rumor Lord Roxton courted Miss Eugenie Caldwell, but she had not believed it. Though only the daughter of a Baron, Miss Caldwell exemplified propriety, her example held up for all the other young ladies to emulate. The very idea she would consider the suit of someone as debauched as Lord Roxton seemed inconceivable. And yet there she was. Sitting in his boat. Staring down her perfectly shaped nose.
“Miss Laytham. It is…lovely to see you.”
Abigail blinked. “Yes, indeed,” she managed, as if Miss Caldwell had stopped by for tea. Not that such an event would ever happen now. Since Uncle Henry’s death their receiving room had remained quite empty. Society did not care to associate with a family they now considered beneath their contempt. Though Abigail suspected it wasn’t so much that her uncle had fallen under the spell of Madame St. Augustine, but rather the extremes he went to win her back when she rejected him for the younger and more affluent, Lord Roxton.
Miss Caldwell offered Abigail a polite smile, but her large brown eyes glittered with distaste and revealed her true feelings. Uncle Henry had once told Abigail the truth always revealed itself in the eyes. And the oh-so proper Eugenie Caldwell’s eyes indicated she would rather be anywhere else but where society’s cast off treaded water in the middle of the Serpentine.
Abigail could hardly blame her. She didn’t particularly want to be there either.
“Miss Laytham,” Lord Roxton said, his tone filled with the condescending self-importance she had been too blind to hear when they were courting. “You cannot climb back into your own boat without capsizing it and it is too far to swim to shore. I cannot in good conscience leave you—”
“Good conscience?” She swiped at another waterlogged curl. “Are you mad?”
He drew his arm back slightly. “I beg your—”
“Oh, Abby, not now,” Caelie groaned, covering her eyes with her hand.