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Authors: Laurel McKee

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Countess of Scandal

BOOK: Countess of Scandal
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Countess of Scandal
Laurel McKee
Published:
2010
Rating:
***
Tags:
Romance, General, Historical, Fiction
From

Countess Eliza Clare knew becoming involved with the United Irish cause was dangerously close to treason, but she didn’t realize just how hazardous politics could be until Major William Denton arrived in Dublin. Years ago, Eliza and Will had indulged in a harmless flirtation, but after Will joined the British Army, they lost contact. Now Eliza is a widow, whose new friends just happen to be radical pamphlet writers and Catholic lawyers, while Will is one of Her Majesty’s officers, assigned the mission of crushing any hint of rebellious activities in Dublin. Suddenly entangled in a risky game of deception and desire, Eliza and Will are equally determined to be the one to win this battle of wits. McKee’s intriguingly nuanced characters and deliciously subtle sense of humor provide the ideal counterpoint to the perfectly executed historical setting that gives Countess of Scandal its refreshingly different literary flavor. —John Charles

Review

"McKee sets the stage for a romantic adventure that captures the spirit of Ireland and a pair of star-crossed lovers to perfection." (
4 Stars,_ RT Book Reviews_
)

"Laurel McKee's magical pen captivates you instantaneously! [A] a love story that will be forever etched in your mind." (
RomanceReadersConnection.com
)

"Eliza's and Will's happy-ever-after, once reached, is both powerfully satisfying and forever engraved on the reader's mind and heart. Every word sings with unyielding intensity... Beautifully written, COUNTESS OF SCANDAL reads like a captivating love story of epic proportions. The ultimate page turner." (
RomanceJunkies.com
)

"Countess of Scandal
delivers on all fronts. The story raced along, zigging and zagging from Dublin to the countryside, from uneasy peace to all out war. And the romance . . . very satisfying!" (
MyShelf.com
)

"My kind of story!" (_
Mary Balogh, New York Times bestselling author
_ )

"
COUNTESS OF SCANDAL has a strong sense of time and place. [T]his story of Ireland does justice to both the setting and the characters." (
AllAboutRomance.com
)

"Laurel McKee captures the excitement and magic of romance." (_
Cathy Maxwell, New York Times bestselling author
_ )

"A hero to steal your heart!" (_
Elizabeth Boyle, New York Times bestselling author
_ )

"An unforgettable love story." (_
Lorraine Heath, New York Times bestselling author
_ )

"An immensely satisfying and sophisticated blend of history and romance. I loved every gorgeous, breathtaking page!" (_
Julianne MacLean, USA Today bestselling author
_ )

"Captivating and poignant! Laurel McKee wields her pen with grace and magic." (_
Lorraine Heath, New York Times bestselling author
_ )

 

 

 

 

Countess of Scandal

Laurel McKee

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Prologue

County
Kildare, Ireland, 1790

Lady Eliza Blacknall slipped through the front doors of her home, Killinan Castle, easing them shut behind her. The drive was quiet, the length of white gravel gleaming under the moonlight Her slippers whispered over the stone, her muslin skirts held close to still their rustle as she ran toward a small walled garden. Free at last! Her parents' dull party, and the dull fi
ance
they intended for her, were left behind

The evening was still and clear but cool, and she wrapped her arms tightly around herself as she sat down on a marble bench. The moon was a fat, silvery crescent set in the purple-black velvet sky, outlined in twinkling stars.

Certainly that must be a magical Irish moon, Eliza fancied, thinking of old tales her nanny once told her, tales of nights when all the humans were gone home to their beds and everything was silent. That was when tiny battalions of fairies would creep out from their hiding
places and hold their own gatherings in magical circles beneath that moon. No dull
Macbeth
for them, oh no. No tea and minuets. Pipes and harps, wild jigs, laughter that went on until dawn. Eliza closed her eyes, picturing tiny wings shimmering like diamonds....

Suddenly, a gentle touch interrupted her whimsical musings. Strong, warm fingers slid over her eyes, and the light scent of soap and new wool tickled her nose. Her heart skipped, then pounded in her breast, so hard she was sure everyone could hear it. She couldn't breathe. Her blood ran hot, yet she shivered.

"Penny for your thoughts," a low, rough voice whispered, his breath cool against the nape of her neck.

Eliza reached up and caught those hands in her own, holding them tightly as she twisted around on the bench. Their owner smiled down at her, all golden hair and gleaming blue-green eyes.

"Will!" she cried out, too loudly. Lowering her voice, she leaned closer and whispered, "Will, what are you doing here? We might be seen." And yet hadn't she hoped, deep down, that he would be waiting here? Wasn't that why she slipped away from the party?

"Seen by whom? The moon? The stars?" As he spoke, a puffy cloud slid in front of the moon, leaving them in the haven of darkness.

Will sat down beside her, twining his fingers tightly with hers. She knew she should pull away, move apart from him, or, better yet, leave altogether. She should go back inside, where she couldn't feel him, smell him, see his golden hair and laughing eyes.

But she could not leave him. "My mother might come looking for me."

Will shook his head, his bright hair gleaming under the stars. Surely he was only part of a dream, for he was too lovely for every day. Too lovely for her. "When I last looked, your mother was deep in conversation with her friend Mrs. Franklin." He raised her hand to his lips, pressing a soft kiss to her fingers before cradling her palm against his cheek.

She felt the smooth heat of his skin and the sharp line of his cheekbones. How she longed to be even closer! To crawl inside his being and stay near him forever, warm and safe. To never lose that crackling excitement he brought with him whenever he walked into a room.

How had she—tall, plain, dark Elizabeth Black-nail—ever been so fortunate to find him? To have him for her friend? She lifted her other hand to his long, tied-back hair, stroking the satiny length with the tips of her fingers. "We must not stay here too long. If my mother sees us, she and my father will lock me in my room for a month." Or marry her to Frederick Mount Clare, posthaste.

Will laughed, the sound deliriously deep, reverberating against her hand. It seemed to echo all through her, to the very core of her heart "Then you would have to let down your hair so I could climb up to rescue you. Like in a fairy story."

Eliza laughed, too, picturing such a thing. "I don't think my hair is long enough."

"No?" He released her hand to twine one curl around his finger. Usually dark brown, her hair was ebony in the night. It caught and clung to his skin. "Then I shall have to remember to bring a very tall ladder."

If only he could. A very, very tall ladder, to lift her
from her real life into a world with only him. Where she would never be apart from him and the way he made her feel—so very alive, as if all her fifteen years before had merely been a waiting slumber.

"Can you come riding tomorrow?" he murmured, still toying with her hair.

She could scarcely think straight when he did that. "I don't think so," she said reluctantly. "I have to have tea with my mother and Lady Mount Clare." And Frederick. "But the next day I can."

"It'll seem like ten years until then." He pressed a gentle kiss to her hair, then gently released the curl to rest it on her shoulder.

"My parents are going to the village after luncheon to inspect the new school that day," she said. "Will you wait for me in our secret place?"

"Always, Eliza."

She nodded, swallowing hard past the dry longing in her throat at the way he spoke her name. "I should probably go back to the house now."

As she spoke, the clouds slid from the moon, and its chalky light streamed down over their hidden garden. That was when she saw it.

Will wore the scarlet coat, faced in yellow and trimmed with narrow gold lace and brass buttons, of the Thirteenth Regiment of Foot. An
English
regiment After she had told him how she felt about Ireland and all it stood for! After she poured out all her passion to him.

A cold wave seemed to break over her at the sight of that hated coat, washing away the warm, giddy haze of unreality that always wrapped around her when he was
near. Her skin turned to ice, and she dropped his hand, leaping up from the bench to move away from him.

She had known this might happen. He was, as her mother pointed out, a younger son, and younger sons had to make their own way. But an English regiment!

"You... you purchased your commission?" she said, her voice strained.

Will frowned, tucking his hands behind his back as if he, too, felt the sudden chill. The slow snapping of their friendship. "Of course. My family has long intended me for the army."

"Yes, but surely the Kildare militia would—"

He laughed humorlessly. "An Irish militia would offer few chances for advancement, I fear."

"Advancement in London, you mean? You would rather be an English officer, sent away from here? From Ireland?"

"Eliza," he said, shaking his head. "Are we not English ourselves? We owe our allegiance to the king, the same as anyone in London. This is the best way for me to make my way in the world. Surely you see that?"

AH Eliza could really see was that he was leaving, going into a world that she had never really understood. But he was part of it, as was her own family. Protestant Ascendancy families like the Dentons and the Black-nails had come from England decades ago to claim estates as prizes from the king for their loyalty. They lived in Ireland, derived their fortunes from it, but were still
English
in their hearts. They were the rulers; the Irish who had been there for centuries before had no power.

Eliza had only ever wanted to be
Irish,
but no one else
in her world felt that way. Not even Will. And now he was leaving her behind.

He took her hand again, holding it tightly in his warm embrace. Eliza stared down at their joined fingers, at the touch that had so thrilled her. Now ... now she just felt cold numbness. Will, and the dream of their friendship, was gone. Captain William Denton was the reality, and the future she had not wanted to face was upon her.

Perhaps her mother was right after all. Love didn't last. Position and responsibility were forever.

"Eliza," he said coaxingly, "the regiment is being sent to the West Indies, but surely it won't be there for long. When I return, we will be older, and I will have made money of my own. May I write to you?"

His eyes, as blue-green as the deepest sea, stared down at her, full of wary questions. She could not read them. Yet, for an instant, it was as if they galloped over the fields together, laughing again. Or when he kissed her in the woods and all time stood utterly still. They were the only two people in the world, bound together by a shimmering, unbreakable bond.

Then the moonlight glinted off one of those newly minted buttons.

"I don't think my parents would allow that," she said.

"When have you ever cared what your parents allowed?" he said with a puzzled laugh.

True enough. Her parents seemed to lecture all the time about proper behavior and family honor, and she seldom listened. She was too caught up in her own fancies. But maybe it was time—past time—she started paying heed.

"You are thinking of your future," she said. "I must think of mine. And mine is here, in Ireland."

"So you still feel the English officers are oppressors?" he asked, disbelieving. "You think I..."

She gently extracted her hand from his clasp and went up on tiptoe to kiss his cheek. Even though she was tall, he was taller. The perfect handsome officer. His skin was so warm and smooth under her lips, his clean scent so alluring. An ineffable sadness seized her heart, and she longed to stay just where she was, to wrap her arms around him so tightly he could not escape.

But she stepped away and said, "I wish you fair prospects, Will. I'll think of you often, I promise."

And she turned and walked quickly away from him, hurrying toward the lit edifice of Killinan Castle. It looked just the same as ever—sturdy gray-white stone, Palladian columns, all the many windows glowing with welcome. Yet, even though she had been gone only half an hour,
she
felt completely changed.

As she entered the foyer, she could hear the hum of voices and laughter from behind the drawing room door. The play had not yet resumed, and hopefully that meant her mother was still too busy playing hostess to have missed Eliza.

She paused before a tall, gilt-framed looking glass to smooth her dress and hair. Was it only her imagination or did she even
look
older than before? She had certainly been a fool to think she could marry Will Denton. It was time for new plans.

"Psst! Eliza!" she heard someone hiss. She turned toward the grand staircase to find her two sisters perched there, peering through the carved banisters. Anna, who
at nine was becoming the golden-haired beauty of the family, always cried about not being allowed to join the parties. And seven-year-old Caroline, dark like Eliza, would rather hunt for tadpoles in the pond. It was she who had spoken.

"You two are supposed to be abed," Eliza said, hurrying to the foot of the stairs.

"We wanted to see the gowns," Anna answered. "And watch the party!"

"It's not much to see," said Eliza. "Quite dull, in fact I wish I could be upstairs with you!"

"I don't think Mama would allow that," Caroline said. "She was out here looking for you."

Eliza was afraid of that. "When?"

"Not ten minutes ago. The Mount Clares have arrived."

"I had best go in, then," Eliza sighed. She turned away, smoothing her skirts again.

"Eliza," Anna called. "Why were you outside for so long?"

"I think she was meeting an admirer," Caroline sang. "He was reading her poetry in the moonlight."

"No such thing," Eliza said sternly. "I just needed some fresh air."

Caroline seemed convinced, more interested now in persuading Eliza to bring her refreshments from the party. But Anna, the Blacknall sister most addicted to romantic novels and sad songs, watched her solemnly, as if she knew what Eliza had been doing in the garden.

Eliza hurried into the drawing room. Everyone still milled about, sipping wine and negus as they chatted, waiting for the play to resume. Her parents stood near the stage, her mother's silvery-blond hair and pale blue brocade gown shimmering in the crowd like a stylish beacon. With them were the Mount Clares, and their son.

Catherine saw Eliza the moment she stepped into the room and beckoned her closer with a bejeweled hand. Eliza pasted on a polite smile and stepped forward into the future—whatever it might hold.

 

Chapter 1

Dublin, December 1797

Isn't that Mount Clare's widow?" a man asked as Eliza passed by him in the crowded, palatial assembly rooms of Rutland Square. It was Lord Morely, secretary at Dublin Castle. He raised his quizzing glass to his eye, watching her closely.

"Indeed, it is," said his portly companion, Mr. Felham. "Poor Mount Clare. He was a friend of mine, y'know. We hunted together. Dicky he can't see what his wife's been up to since he died."

"Formed one of those blasted teapot societies, I've heard," Lord Morely answered.

"Sedition over the tea table and embroidery hoop. My wife tells me she entertains teachers, poets, female radicals, even
Catholics.
Shocking."

"Those damnable United Irishmen. They prey on the gullible peasants, persuading them to do their filthy, treasonous work. Lord Camden has been a weak Lord
Lieutenant, indeed. He does little to stop them. He should be sent back to England."

BOOK: Countess of Scandal
13.92Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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