A Scandalous Match Against All Odds (Preview)

Chapter One

February 1811

Woodfield Park

Reginald Stanley, Duke of Woodfield, grimaced as he heard another scream. He was on the other side of the house and the screams sounded like they were only in the next room. They made his ears ring and his stomach churn. Whoever decided that childbirth should be painful had to be a sadist. No woman should have to go through that. It was just downright cruel.

God had punished Eve for her indiscretions. There was no need to tarnish other women with the same brush.

Reginald found himself biting back a grim smile at this. Then again, if his doubts were proved correct, maybe a little pain wouldn’t go amiss. Serve her right.

Stop it. That wasn’t fair at all. His wife was up in her room giving birth to their first child and Reginald knew she was struggling. Clara was petite, not very strong at all. This would be hard for her.

He wanted to go up there, hold her hand and soothe her. But it wasn’t allowed. No man was allowed in the room with the exception of his valet Egan, who had been hurrying back and forth doing errands for the midwife. And Clara wouldn’t want him there, anyway. She didn’t like being in a state of undress around him, never mind practically naked while she gave birth.

If he was honest, the thought of seeing his wife in pain, seeing so much blood, was making him squeamish. Reginald didn’t do well with blood like that.

“You need to stop pacing around like that, Reggie.” A voice from the fireplace had him turning. “You’re making me dizzy.”

Thomas Bexley, Earl of Granbury, was sitting in one of the wingback chairs by the roaring fire, a glass of whisky in his hand. He had come over as soon as Reginald had sent for him. There was no way that Reginald was going to sit in his study twiddling his thumbs on his own. He needed his closest friend with him to keep him distracted. Although Thomas seemed more interested in drinking his cabinet dry. The screams were getting to him as well and seemed to be having more of an effect on Thomas than Reginald. His friend was pale, looking nauseous every time Clara screamed.

“You expect me to sit here and listen to my wife screaming in agony up there?” Reginald demanded.

“It’s childbirth. She’s not dying.”

“From the look on your face, you think otherwise,” Reginald snorted.

Thomas looked away. That was when Reginald remembered. Thomas’s sister Zoe had died in childbirth the year before. She had been desperate for a child with her husband, but she had bled out too much, dying in her husband’s arms. Her child had, thankfully, survived and Thomas’s brother-in-law was raising him alone. Reginald could see how much Thomas adored his niece, and he had been broken up by his sister’s death.

Childbirth was dangerous. It was a miracle that the mother survived without something happening. And many women had multiple births, some families having up to ten children. Reginald had no idea how they managed that, because he couldn’t imagine what they went through to bring their children into the world, both physically and mentally. When he had mentioned children to Clara when they first married and that he would like at least three, Clara had almost fainted. She said that if she had to go through childbirth, she was having one child and no more. Even if the child died, she wasn’t going through it again. Reginald had been hurt by that comment. Now Clara was going through what she had dreaded the most.

He silently prayed that this child lived. If Clara wasn’t going to have any other children, Reginald wanted this child to survive. Boy or girl, he would never neglect them.

Sighing, Reginald sank into the chair across from his friend.

“I’m sorry, Thomas. I didn’t mean to sound so callous.”

“You weren’t callous, and I understand the situation. Really.” Thomas sat forward, resting his elbows on his knees, his glass in one hand. “Look, just take a few deep breaths. She’s giving birth to your child, and then you two can enjoy your family.”

“I suppose,” Reginald grunted.

A family. That was all he wanted. His parents had died in a carriage accident when Reginald was sixteen, and as their only child he had inherited the title. Reginald hadn’t wanted it. He wanted his father back. Knowing he got a title once his father was dead didn’t sit well with him at all. His mother had suffered during Reginald’s birth and she couldn’t have any more children as a result. Reginald had wanted a family, a proper family. He missed his parents and wanted to do them proud.

But every time he thought about family and knowing that he was about to become a father, Reginald was reminded again of that man. Of the man who had taken Clara’s heart before Reginald had come along. Who still had her heart, as far as Reginald was aware. Clara had tried to say otherwise, but Reginald just knew. Whenever they were together, she was somewhat distant. Reginald knew what she was thinking about, or who she was thinking about. It had pushed them apart.

Damn him.

“Reggie?”

Reginald looked up. Thomas was watching him with a concerned expression.

“That’s the second time you’ve called me that in as many minutes,” Reginald commented. “You’re more worried about this than I am.”

“I’m worried about you.” Thomas put his glass aside and sat forward again. “Your mood has been all over the place since I arrived.”

“Given the situation, I think that’s acceptable.”

“It is, but at the same time you just seem…” Thomas dithered. “Off. I don’t know how to really describe it. Not completely invested in this.”

Reginald glared.

“It’s my first child, Thomas.”

“Even so.” Thomas tapped the side of his head. “You’ve got something going on in that head of yours and it’s stopping you from getting completely invested in this. It keeps coming back when I think you’re about to panic.”

His friend was more astute than Reginald expected. They had known each other since they were barely crawling. Twenty-eight years was a very long time, and their bond had never been broken. Thomas knew him more than anyone else did. Reginald looked at the floor. He shouldn’t say anything. He was being a fool, and if he was wrong it was going to be even worse. And yet he couldn’t get it out of his mind. It niggled at him, making Reginald divided on what was really going on.

“I shouldn’t be thinking about it right now,” he mumbled. “It’s not fair on anyone.”

“What isn’t?” Thomas urged. “Talk to me. What’s going on?”

Reginald hesitated. Thomas knew something was wrong, so there was no point in denying it. And he needed a clear, sensible mind to make him realise that he was being a fool. That he was doing something unthinkable and it wasn’t really happening. He ran his hands through his hair.

“It’s foolish to think of it. Especially right now…”

“Reggie.”

Reginald glared at him.

“Would you stop calling me that?” He snapped. “I feel like we’re six years old again.”

“It gets your attention.” Thomas shook his head impatiently. “Stop stalling.”

He was going to tell Reginald that he was a fool. Reginald knew it. He looked at the fire, watching the flames jump and dance around.

“I keep wondering if the child is mine.”

Thomas’s eyes widened.

“What? Why would…?” Then his expression cleared. “Terence Quarterman.”

Reginald nodded. Lieutenant Terence Quarterman of the British Army. He and Clara had been very close when they were children. It was believed that the two of them were in love and they were going to marry. From the sad look in Clara’s eyes whenever Quarterman was mentioned, she would have married him no matter what. But then Quarterman had decided that he would rather join the army instead of marry. He asked Clara to wait for him, but her parents were desperate for her to be wed and if she didn’t choose someone, they would have chosen for her. Clara then practically threw herself on Reginald. At the time, Reginald had been delighted. Clara was a beautiful young woman. She still was, but she had been decidedly cool with him. Reginald had wanted to love her deeply and have it returned, but Clara made it clear she had left her heart with someone else, so he wasn’t having her completely. That had hurt. A lot.

But Reginald had persevered. Quarterman was in Spain and other various places on the continent. He wouldn’t come onto his estate, not when Reginald hadn’t invited him. No way would he invite the man Clara clearly still held a torch for.

Until the year before. When Reginald had realised that his marriage was in danger.

“He was here last year.”

“What?” Thomas stared. “When? You never told me?”

“You were away at the time. And I thought it was settled by the time you got back.” Reginald rubbed his hands over his face. Were his hands shaking or was it his imagination? “I came home from Parliament and found them sitting on the couch together. It looked a little too close for comfort.”

And they had sprung apart as Reginald had come into the room. Clara had been bright, a little too bright, while adjusting her hair. Reginald had immediately told Quarterman to leave, that he wasn’t welcome. Clara had protested that she had invited Quarterman herself, and Quarterman had acted like he didn’t have any authority. That had made Reginald furious. He had been in London for a week. God only knew how long he had been here without Reginald’s knowledge. He had grabbed Quarterman by the collar and thrown him out of the house, threatening to feed him to the hounds if he came back.

There had been a big argument between them that day. Clara was standing up for her former lover while Reginald reminded her that she was a married woman and not a harlot. That had clearly stung Clara and she had slapped him before storming off.

But then she had come to him that night, asking for forgiveness. She knew he loved her and she played him, seducing him that night. Soon after, Clara had announced she was pregnant. Now Reginald was beginning to wonder. Clara hadn’t seen Quarterman again, but Reginald was sure that she had been writing to her lover. So, he intercepted her letters. If they were for Quarterman, they were burned without opening. Quarterman sent letters himself, and those were burned as well.

Reginald was prepared to wipe the man out of existence. And if the soldier came to his home demanding to see Clara, Reginald would be ready. Clara was his wife and he wasn’t going to be made a cuckold.

He and Clara had been married for five years, and Clara had alternated between being so loving that it was sweet and treating him coldly. Reginald had given up trying to figure out what mood she was in, continuing to try and be a loving husband. He took his vows seriously.

Clearly, Clara hadn’t felt the same way.

“You believe that they had an affair last year about the time your child would have been conceived,” Thomas murmured.

“I believe they did.” Reginald swallowed. “Which is why when Clara said she was pregnant, I was delighted but dubious.”

“Hadn’t you…you know?” Thomas’s cheeks went red.

“You can say it, Thomas. We’re grown men,” Reginald scowled. “Did we make love at the same time of conception? Yes. The night after Quarterman was thrown out. Which makes me even more uncomfortable.”

Clara had to know what she was doing. She had tried to cover up what she had done. Maybe she knew she was already pregnant or maybe she wanted to make sure her tracks were covered should she become pregnant and Reginald hadn’t touched her intimately. Reginald felt nauseous knowing that Clara might have deceived him.

“Look, Reggie…”

“Stop calling me that.”

“Forgive me,” Thomas started again. “If this child is yours, and we will only need to look at the baby to know…”

“How? Babies look like other babies.”

“You and Clara are dark-haired, as are the rest of your family. Quarterman is fair-haired.” Thomas shrugged as Reginald frowned at him. “My brother has been doing some research at medical school. It’s getting rather advanced.”

“I’m sure it is,” Reginald murmured.

“But what I’m trying to say is, if the child is yours, then you don’t need to worry about anything. Quarterman will just be banned from contacting Clara again. If the child isn’t…”

“Then?”

“Then Clara is colder than I thought.”

Cold and heartless. Reginald knew what he would do. If the child wasn’t his, Reginald would send Clara away. He had a holding on the Isle of Man. It was a small place, but it was perfect for solitude. And the servants there were locals, loyal only to him. Clara would go to live there. Alone. No letters to anyone that hadn’t been checked first. She would be watched closely, slowly erased out of his life.

Reginald knew he was thinking just as coldly as Clara had been, but he wouldn’t be made to look a fool. Quarterman would not win this time.

There was a movement in the doorway. Reginald looked up. Then he shot to his feet. His valet stood in the doorway, the front of his shirt and his arms covered in blood. He looked like he had seen a ghost. Then panic gripped Reginald’s stomach.

Oh, God. Are they…?

“You…Your Grace.” Victor Egan was shaking. Reginald had never seen him look so rattled. “You have a baby boy.”

A boy. Reginald swallowed. An heir. He wanted to be happy. Knew he should be happy. But he couldn’t. Not with the uncertainty over his parentage in Reginald’s mind. He took a deep breath.

“And my wife?”

“It…it was…” Egan swayed and leaned against the doorway. “It was a difficult birth. She’s lost too much blood…”

“She’s dead?”

That didn’t fill Reginald with as much dread as he thought. If it had been before he witnessed his wife’s interaction with her former sweetheart, he would have been devastated. But now he just felt numb.

“No, but…I don’t think it’ll be long.” Egan closed his eyes for a brief moment. “She wants to talk to you. Quickly.”

Reginald glanced at Thomas, who had risen to his feet. He gave Reginald a sharp nod as he went to the valet.

“Go. I’ll get Egan some brandy. He looks like he needs it.”

Reginald couldn’t agree more. Egan had offered to be the one who went back and forth getting whatever was needed. Their midwife, Marion Hazeltine, had been grateful about that. Reginald had urged Egan not to – he had heard how births could be – but Egan had said he could handle it. From the way he looked now, he couldn’t.

Reginald made himself head towards the stairs, taking them two at a time. Clara needed him. She was dying.

Oh, God. Clara was dying. She was bleeding out. For a moment his heart stopped. She had just done the most courageous thing a woman could ever do, and she was dying. How could life be so unfair?

Something else passed through Reginald’s mind, but he pushed it away. Not now. Now was not the time to think about it. His wife needed him.

Taking a deep breath, Reginald headed into the master bedroom. The curtains were closed, and Reginald could hear the storm raging outside. The fire was ablaze and two of the maids were sat in front of it with Marion, who was checking over a tiny baby on the floor, laid out on a thick blanket. The little boy was wriggling, his tiny lungs making his scream sound so loud. Reginald’s heart clenched at the sight.

If this was his son, then he would do everything in his power to look after him. If he wasn’t…

Clara lay on the bed, her maid Daisy tending to her. She was mopping her mistress’s brow, which was beaded with sweat. The sheets were covered with blood. Reginald’s stomach rolled at the sight of it. There was so much blood. Clara was only small. She couldn’t have coped, but she was sure that she would be fine. Now, from her pasty-white face, she was beginning to realise that she wasn’t going to be fine.

Reginald felt a pang of pain for her. She had been so brave over this, and now she wouldn’t get to hold her son. He leaned over, taking the cloth from Daisy.

“Clara? It’s me.”

Eyes the colour of blue gems looked up at him. Eyes that were paler than before. Much like the rest of her. It was like she was slipping away as he watched her. Her voice was barely a whisper, like speaking was too much effort for her.

“Reginald.”

“I’m here,” Reginald knelt beside the bed. He took her hand. It was ice cold. “You had a baby boy. He’s going to be fine. The midwife has him now. Can you hear him screaming?”

“Yes.” Clara licked her lips and her eyes flickered off elsewhere. “I’m not.”

I’m not? Then Reginald realised what she meant. She was not fine. Deep down, he knew that, but he pushed it aside. Their child needed him. The baby needed her.

“Don’t say that,” he said gently. “You’re not going anywhere. You just need to rest and you’ll be cleaned up. You’ll be up before you know it.”

Clara made a slight sound. She didn’t believe what he was saying, either. They both knew what was happening. Clara just seemed more accepting of it.

“Not yours.”

For a moment, Reginald thought he hadn’t heard correctly. It was barely a noise out of Clara’s mouth. He leaned over.

“What did you say?”

“Baby.” Clara licked her lips again. “Not yours.”

He knew it. Reginald had half-expected this, but it was still a shock when she said it. It slammed him in his chest, and for a moment he couldn’t breathe. His worst fear, his suspicions, had been confirmed. And from the slight smile curving at Clara’s lips, she knew it.

She had known. Which was why she had been overly affectionate after Quarterman had left. She wanted to hide what she had done if anything started showing. Reginald felt sick.

“It’s Quarterman’s, isn’t it?” He said bitterly. “He’s the father.”

“Yes.” Clara’s eyelids fluttered closed for a moment before she opened them and looked at him with a look of smug defiance. Reginald had never seen so much hate in someone’s eyes. “I gave the man I love a son. And he will have our child. Not you. Never you.”

She might as well as sat up and stabbed him through the heart. Reginald had guessed there wasn’t love on Clara’s side for most of their marriage, but he never suspected hatred. Not like this. And she sounded pleased that she had left him with nothing.

Clara’s eyes closed, her smug smile fading. And Reginald released her hand, rising to his feet as she slipped away. Then he felt nothing. Nothing at all.

***

“Your Grace?”

Reginald looked up. After Clara had died, he hadn’t stayed. He hadn’t given the child a second glance. Not that he could look in that direction. The maids and the midwife had heard the admission. Reginald felt the humiliation burning. He had suspected, and now he had been proven correct. Out of the devil’s mouth.

He didn’t have a wife. He didn’t have a child. Quarterman had taken both of those from him.

Reginald had staggered back downstairs, heading back into the study. Thomas had been sitting with Egan, who was nursing a brandy staring into the distance. The man had been through a lot and that was before the revelation. Maybe that was why men weren’t in the room when the mother was giving birth. They couldn’t cope with it.

Reginald could cope with the blood. It was his wife’s confession that had been the worst.

Thomas had given him a querying look, but Reginald had slumped into the chair across from them, staring into the fire. He couldn’t answer. Not yet, anyway. Even though he had known deep down that something wasn’t right, to have it confirmed was something else.

Someone was trying to attract his attention. Marion had come into the room, holding a bundle in her arms. There was a bit of sniffling, and then quiet. Reginald was surprised that the baby had calmed down, considering the screaming earlier.

“What is it, Marion?”

“The baby, Your Grace.”

The midwife turned her arms so Reginald could see its face. The little boy was asleep, one hand half-curled near his face. Reginald had to turn away. He looked too much like Quarterman.

Damn that man.

“Is he healthy?” he said gruffly.

“He is. One of the maids with me was a wet nurse. She’s fed him, so he’ll sleep for now.”

That was something. Reginald didn’t know much about babies, but he knew some milk from its mother would quieten them down. Or someone who could produce the milk needed.

Certainly not his mother now. Reginald turned away in disgust.

“Take him away.”

“Your Grace?”

Reginald growled.

“You’re not deaf, Marion. You heard what my wife said. The baby is not mine, and knowing what happened at the time the baby was conceived, I know she’s right.”

She had tried to pull the wool over his eyes, and if she hadn’t been dying, Reginald would never have truly known. How could he raise a child that wasn’t his? He would always be looking at the boy, reminding himself of his wife’s unfaithfulness. That was not fair on anyone, especially not the child. Reginald knew he sounded harsh, but if he said all of this out loud, he was going to end up bawling like a baby. That he would certainly not do, unless in private.

Marion looked bewildered. She seemed to tighten her arms around the sleeping child.

“But what shall I do? He can’t go to the orphanage.”

“I never said you were going to take him there.”

The orphanage was not a good place for anyone, especially a newborn. They would eat him alive. But Reginald had now thought of some other place that would be preferable for a child.

“There’s a family who live a half-hour ride away. The Talbot family. The father owns the farm that borders mine.”

“I know them. They’re a good family.” Marion looked pained. “I had to help their eldest daughter give birth to a stillborn last month.”

“I know. That’s why I mention her.” Elizabeth Nesbitt, formerly Talbot, was desperate for children, but she had suffered too many losses. She and her husband were in pieces about it. Reginald swallowed. “They’ll be able to provide for the child.” Then he turned to Marion and fixed her with a sharp glare. “With no connection to me. I don’t want anyone to know where the baby came from.”

“Understood, Your Grace. But what about the Talbot family?”

“Make up whatever story you want. Or just tell them the truth about the mother dying in childbirth and there is no father around.”

Which there wouldn’t be. Reginald would make sure of that. Marion didn’t look too sure about his decision, but she nodded.

“Very well, Your Grace. I’ll take the baby over there now.” She paused. “What shall I say about your wife? People know I’ve been up here. I wouldn’t be surprised if the whole county heard her screaming.”

Reginald took a deep breath and rose to his feet.

“I’m going to be discussing that with everyone else in the house. My wife died in childbirth.” He looked Marion in the eye. “The baby, too.”

“The baby?”

Reginald gritted his teeth.

“I don’t want it to get out what’s happened. If it comes out that my wife had a child and it wasn’t mine, whoever blabbed is going to answer to me.” Reginald did not want to be the subject of ridicule. A duke who couldn’t keep his own wife under control. “I’ll pay everyone extra to keep their mouths shut about this.”

Marion shook her head, lifting her chin defiantly.

“You don’t need to pay me, Your Grace,” she said evenly. “I won’t say a word. I’m discreet when I need to be.”

That was why Reginald liked her. The midwife was young, but she was tough. And loyal. And she had never said a word to anyone about their secrets. She had kept enough of Reginald’s own family secrets in the past, as had her mother when she was the midwife. Had she known about Clara’s infidelity? Doubtful, because Marion would have gone straight to Reginald. Her loyalty was to him, not to his wife.

She was a better person than his wife, certainly.

Reginald reached out and squeezed her shoulder, giving her a grateful nod.

“Thank you, Marion.”

“Don’t thank me. It’s my job.” Marion adjusted her hold on the baby. “I’ll take the little lad to his parents now.”

Reginald watched her leave the room without a glance back. Marion would get the child to people who would look after him. Elizabeth and Zeke Nesbitt would be delighted to have a baby. They were sweet young people. They deserved happiness, and Reginald was glad to give that to him.

The baby would be safe. His life would be better not knowing the truth.

“Are you sure about this, Reggie?” Thomas asked.

Reginald spun around. Thomas was watching him with narrowed eyes. Egan was also watching him. Then Reginald realised what he had said.

“How much of that did you hear?”

“We’re in the same room, so everything.” Thomas rose to his feet. “And you wouldn’t have sent your own child away. You were right. The baby isn’t yours.”

“Oh, God.” Egan shuddered. “She was…I can’t believe it.”

“Believe it, because that’s what happened.” Reginald shot his valet a glare. “If you say anything at all, Egan…”

“I’m loyal to you, Your Grace.” Egan’s expression hardened. “I’m not going to betray you by telling anyone the truth. Neither will anyone here. We’re your people, not hers.”

Not hers.

“But you knew about Quarterman being here when I was away,” Reginald snapped. “All of you knew and you never said a word.”

Egan rose to his feet and Reginald almost took a step back. His manservant had never stood up to him before, and seeing him with his shirt covered in blood, his face still pale, the man looked terrifying. Egan’s voice was tight as he spoke.

“Normally, I would concede that point, Your Grace. But I’ve just had to watch a woman give birth and be in absolute agony over it. Now she’s dead, and I’m not in the mood to be chastised.”

“Egan…” Thomas began but Egan held up a hand.

“Not now, my lord. I need to say this.” His eyes never left his master’s. “You’ve had a shock tonight. I understand that. And I understand that you want to make sure there is no evidence of your wife’s infidelity. But even with your suspicions, would you have listened to us if we had come to you with what we had seen? Which was nothing. They were very careful. Even the duchess’s maid didn’t know anything. Would you have listened?”

Reginald was stunned. Egan had been in his family’s service since he was six years old as a boot boy. Now thirty years of age, he had risen his way through to become Reginald’s personal valet. And the man had seemed incredibly mild, someone who wouldn’t speak out of turn. To see him looking at Reginald with barely contained anger and a touch of fear in his eyes was a sight he never thought he would see.

But he was right. Reginald’s mind was muddled, and had he been thinking clearly, he wouldn’t have listened. Even with his own suspicions, he wouldn’t have believed his servants, because he had desperately wanted to believe that Clara wouldn’t do that to him. She had been very amorous right after Quarterman departed, which had made him put his blinkers on. Egan wouldn’t have been able to express his concerns then.

Clara wouldn’t have let herself be caught. She was clever like that.

“But you don’t need to worry about us saying anything,” Egan went on grimly. “Not even Daisy. She knows her place and she needs this job. No one is going to speak out against you.”

“Did she know about her mistress’s…indiscretions?”

“Of course not. The duchess always sent her away.” Egan’s eyes flared. “She knew nothing.”

Egan really believed that. The poor man was sweet on her. Reginald wanted to point out that his valet’s judgement was clouded with regards to her. Then again, he wasn’t exactly in the best frame of mind.

Letting the baby go to some other family was the best thing to do. He knew it. So why did he have a nasty taste in his mouth?

“I think I’m going to check on those who were there during the birth.” Egan gave him a stiff bow before heading towards the door. “We’ve all had a shock tonight. You know where we are if you want us.”

Reginald stared after his valet as the door closed. He had never been dismissed by his own servants before. Then again, perhaps he deserved it. Reginald had never acted like this before.

Because this situation had never happened before.

“Are you sure about this, Reggie?”

Thomas was watching him closely. Reginald took a deep breath and nodded.

“I’m sure, Thomas.”

“What if you wake up and realise you didn’t want to give the baby away…”

“How can I raise a child knowing the truth? I wouldn’t be able to treat him as my own, and the child will grow to resent me.”

“Clara could have been lying to you. She could have said it to hurt you even more.” Thomas spread his hands. “She was dying, and she wanted to show herself before she passed.”

Reginald shook his head.

“I saw the child. There’s too much of Quarterman in him. That baby is his.”

“How can you tell that when the baby was asleep? And babies look like anyone.”

Reginald knew. He knew in his gut. Clara may have said it to hurt him, but there was nothing there. Reginald could only see someone else’s child. Not his. He felt nothing except pity for the little lad. He didn’t deserve to be born into this world as he had been. Being raised by Mr and Mrs Nesbitt would be the best thing for him.

“I know.” Reginald ran his hand through his hair. His hand was shaking. “I wouldn’t be able to treat him as my own, and the child will grow to resent me.”

“But to give the child away? Quarterman is still alive. Clara was probably hoping that if something happened to her then you would give Quarterman their child because you wouldn’t want someone who wasn’t an heir.”

“That’s exactly what she wanted.” Reginald knew Clara. And she would have let someone know. Quarterman, for example. He would be coming here looking for his child. “And he’s not getting the baby.”

Thomas blinked.

“But…I don’t approve of the situation, but he is the father.”

Reginald snarled, which had his friend taking a step back in surprise.

“I was meant to be the father, Thomas. Me! And she betrayed me. I will not give Quarterman the satisfaction of walking away knowing that he had one last thing out of my wife that was meant to be mine. And he will go to Clara’s maid first.” His hands clenched. “Daisy will be told to notify him of the death of the duchess and of the baby, telling him never to come back. I won’t even let him on my land to pay his respects when Clara’s funeral happens.”

He would make sure of it. Those two had torn his marriage apart, and if it got out that Clara had died giving birth to a baby that wasn’t his, Reginald would be a laughing-stock. While Reginald didn’t care too much about his stance in society – he was known as a duke who preferred to be a duke from a distance – this would rip him to pieces. People had illegitimate children all the time, but Reginald was not one of these people. He had been betrayed by the one person who was supposed to stand by him.

Was it petty to not let Quarterman know about the baby? Yes. But Reginald knew Quarterman would let everyone know. The man would get the last blow. He had slept with a duchess, a married woman. He wouldn’t get the satisfaction.

Thomas was looking at him like he had never seen him before.

“What?”

“I don’t recognise you anymore,” Thomas murmured. “You’ve never behaved like this.”

“Maybe because I’ve never been in this position before.” Reginald glared at him. “If your wife had just told you that the child she had brought into this world wasn’t yours, wouldn’t you feel vindictive?”

Thomas’s pause gave him his answer. If it had happened to him, the Earl of Granbury would behave in exactly the same way. Neither of them would have given the unfaithful couple the satisfaction.

“So,” Thomas folded his arms, his lips pursed in a disapproving frown, “the birth father won’t know that his child lives?”

“No.” Reginald was determined on that. “The Nesbitt family will raise the boy. Their family are good people.”

He rubbed at his chest, wondering when he had become so hollow. He may have been behaving cruelly right now, but he wasn’t completely cold. An orphanage was no place for a newborn baby – not that Marion would have taken him there anyway. If he had told her to do that, Marion would have found a family who were in need of a child. Or raised the child herself. That was how Marion was. And Reginald wasn’t about to pass the baby off to someone he didn’t trust. Anthony Talbot was a neighbour and a friend. He had raised two daughters who were good, kind and generous. Elizabeth Nesbitt deserved some happiness.

More so than Reginald deserved right now. His cold-handed way didn’t deserve anything.

“Quarterman will find out about this,” Thomas warned, but Reginald shook his head.

“No, he won’t. I’ll make sure of it.”

He was going to talk to his servants, make sure they were aware of the repercussions if they said anything. Reginald would increase their pay just so he could keep it a secret. If Egan’s words were anything to go by, they wouldn’t say a thing even without the pay increase, but Reginald had to be sure.

Whoever told Quarterman the truth was going to have to face Reginald. And he wouldn’t let them walk away unscathed.

Chapter Two

9th April 1811

Hillingdon, London

Susanna could hear the music and the loud chatter downstairs. It was hard not to. The doors to the ballroom hadn’t been closed, so everything floated up the stairs and throughout the house. Susanna wouldn’t be surprised if her husband had told his servants never to close the doors so that she would hear everything. Taunt her with what was going on.

Make her very aware of what she was going into.

Susanna knew her hands were shaking. She twisted them tightly in her lap and she stared out of the window. People were still arriving for the ball hosted by Frederick Sinclair, Baron Greenbush, and they looked ready for some drama. Lots of drama had been swirling around London lately, and pretty much all of it was connected to Susanna.

Unfairly, too. Susanna had tried to fight her corner, but she was backed in so much she didn’t have any room to move. She hated that. Nobody was listening to her. They preferred the lies that had been spread about her. They believed them. Her husband believed them.

Susanna was pretty much on her own. And now she was expected to go downstairs and pretend to be a good hostess when she knew that people were whispering about her. Some of them made no secret of what they were talking about.

Frederick knew exactly what he was doing. This was humiliation.

Susanna pressed a hand to her stomach. She felt like she was going to be sick again.

“I can’t do this.”

There was a rustling of clothes behind her and a petite fair-haired young woman, barely nineteen years of age, appeared at her side.

“Yes, you can. You can go out there, hold your head high and be the person you always are. They’ll see that you’ve got nothing to hide.”

“That’s the problem,” Susanna muttered. “Being who I am makes people think I’ve got something to hide.”

It didn’t matter what she did, the minds of the people in society were made up. She was a wanton woman, someone who was willing to have an affair with another man. Affairs during a marriage happened all the time. It shouldn’t have been such a scandal, not like this. But Susanna was innocent. She had never looked at another man since she married Frederick. She didn’t even look at her husband, but she wasn’t about to go and have a dalliance with someone else. People had to know that.

Or maybe they thought because she and Frederick weren’t entirely affectionate and loving that she had. God only knew how many women Frederick had bedded in their marriage. Susanna pushed that aside. That was only making her worse.

Lucy Talbot sighed and stepped forward, swiftly drawing the curtains.

“There. Now you can stop looking at everyone like you’re going to faint. You don’t want the nosy biddies to see you.” She turned to Susanna. “Susanna, you’re overthinking this. You’re the hostess here. Whether you like it or not, and I know you hate it, you have to make an appearance.”

“I know that.” Susanna looked at the floor. “But I can’t…I can’t move.”

She just couldn’t go anywhere. Her feet were stuck to the floor. Susanna was sure if she started moving then she was going to fall over. Feet that weren’t hers appeared in front of her, along with skirts in pale pink. Then fingers were under her chin and Susanna was made to look up. Lucy was shorter than her, but she seemed much taller right now. She gave a sweet smile, no judgement at all in her expression.

“Look, you did nothing wrong. You’ve done nothing wrong. You can go down there and look them in the eye. If you hear a mumbling, just smile and say, ‘I’m glad you fund a pack of lies interesting. I’m sure they’re the pinnacle of a dinner conversation’.”

That had Susanna giggling.

“That sounds exactly like something I would say.”

“Because you’ve been able to speak your mind before. How come you can’t now?”

Susanna didn’t know. She had been trying to work that out herself. She had spoken her mind within the confines of her position, and she had raised a few eyebrows. People thought she shouldn’t be able to say what was on her mind, and a few found her abrasive. But Susanna had simply said she wasn’t about to hold back, and she was an honest person. She wouldn’t say something that was a lie.

Unfortunately, that seemed to be working against her right now. Susanna hated that whenever she went out, people looked at her, openly whispering and pointing. No one seemed like they wanted to hide it. Susanna had felt like a fraud going about her usual business. Her friends now gave her a wide berth, and her family. Susanna had hated that the most. Her parents had done nothing wrong. She had done nothing wrong. But no one was listening. Not when the lies were much more interesting.

Lucy was one who stood by her. They had only met the year before when Lucy had come to London for her first season. She had been there when Susanna had been introduced to the man who would be her downfall. Young and innocent as she was, Lucy had a stronger mind than people realised. She hadn’t believed any of it, and she had stood by Susanna as soon as the rumours began to start. Mostly because she had been with Susanna at the times people believed she had been having her affair. She knew the truth, and Susanna would be forever grateful for her friend’s help, her support. She needed it right now. Even the servants wouldn’t look her in the eye. Susanna was sure they had been told by Frederick not to interact with her more than she had to. Even her maid Ursula had kept her distance. That had hurt, but Susanna had considered Ursula with such fondness. Now there was nothing as if they hadn’t been sitting for hours talking while Susanna got herself ready for the day or for bed.

Ursula knew the truth. She should have been able to disprove the rumours. But she had said nothing, merely keeping her tongue. Susanna knew who had told her to do that. That made her want to wrap her hands around her husband’s throat and squeeze. It was very unladylike of her, she knew. But everyone else was seeing her as very unladylike right now. Why not do something to prove it?

Stop it! Now was not the time to think about throttling her husband. Susanna had something else to worry about. A ball, one that she didn’t want to be at, but her husband had said she must be there, and she had better be on her best behaviour.

While he was sneaking away with one of the ladies, she was sure. What a hypocrite.

Susanna took a deep breath and glanced towards the door.

“Frederick’s going to be looking for me. It’s been nearly two hours since the ball started.”

“Let him look,” Lucy said. “He can’t force you out there.”

“He most certainly can,” Susanna said bitterly. “I’m his wife and the hostess. I have to be there, no matter what.”

From Lucy’s frustrated expression, she thought the same thing.

“I can’t believe that a rumour could go around London that fast. It just…” Her friend spread her hands. “Exploded is the only word I can think of.”

“Sounds about right, actually.”

Lucy snorted.

“That people can believe them without any proof is awful.”

“Who needs proof nowadays?” Susanna asked with a scowl. “Lies are far more interesting than the truth. Even when the truth is told, no one wants to let go of something that causes some drama in a person’s life.”

“That’s very philosophical.”

“My father has said it multiple times before when he’s told me to keep an open mind about people.”

Now Susanna knew what he was talking about. An open mind threw no judgement until you knew all the facts. Unfortunately, everyone else in society seemed to have missed that lesson. They weren’t good people like Richard Bolton. But it was the good people who were being maligned. Susanna’s parents and younger siblings were being treated like they had known the whole time. Whatever happened with Susanna ended up being reflected on her family. Even though she was innocent. Her family knew the truth, but nobody could get the harpies of the nobility to believe them. Now they were being all but ignored and people were pulling away. Nobody wanted to be associated with them.

Lucy was, and she was taking a very big risk. Yet she didn’t care. She had stood up for Susanna before, her timid personality disappearing as she became protective of her friend. Susanna was surprised at that and humbled. Lucy Talbot was someone you wanted on your side. She had courage buried underneath her shy exterior, and she was loyal. Very loyal. It was going to affect her and her family, especially when she was barely out of her first season, but Lucy had said she didn’t care as long as she knew she was doing the right thing.

Susanna didn’t deserve a friend like her. She was far too good.

“She’s going to be there as well,” she said bitterly, crossing the room to sit on the edge of the bed. It was either that or end up on the floor with her legs shaking as much as they were.

“Who?” Then Lucy’s eyes widened. “Her?”

“Yes. Frederick said she was a friend and that she should be invited.”

Susanna had protested, but Frederick had cut her off. He had reminded her about their friendship, and how close they had been. After all, it was Margaret Abernathy who had introduced Susanna to Frederick during their first season. She had set the wheels in motion, so to speak, but then she had turned around and betrayed Susanna. Over a man.

Susanna was beginning to wonder which man was Margaret doing this for. She didn’t really believe that her former friend was doing it because of the man involved in the rumours. It was for someone else entirely, and that made Susanna feel even worse.

If Margaret was doing this because Susanna had something she wanted, then her plan was working. Susanna would not let her win.

“She’s part of the rumours, isn’t she?” Lucy frowned. “Why would she be here?”

“She’s ‘a friend of the family’, according to Frederick.” Susanna scowled. “They like to make me squirm. And to make Mr Porter bow to her every whim.”

Lucy snorted.

“He shouldn’t be here, either. I saw him as I arrived talking to Baron Greenbush. There didn’t seem to be any animosity between them. If anything, they were talking like old friends.”

“Which makes me think that he’s in on it as well.”

And that was the reason why he hadn’t defended Susanna and said that nothing had happened. He knew the rumours weren’t true. But Adam Porter was besotted with Margaret. He would do anything she wanted, even if she treated him badly. She saw him as a plaything and liked to toy with him. When Susanna had first met him, she hadn’t cared much for the man. He was young and attractive, but he was incredibly dull. There was nothing much to him at all. If Susanna had to assign him a colour, it would be grey. Because he was just…there. That was it. But it was clear that he was in love with Margaret Abernathy, and she was only too aware of it. Susanna had winced at the way Margaret was towards him, and Mr Porter had taken it like he thought any attention was good attention.

Susanna had tried to make him feel welcome. She had a good heart and wanted to help. She had talked to him, danced with him even as he trod on her toes, and tried to be interested in what he was talking about. He was interested in the most boring topics possible, and Susanna had sat listening to women discussing fashion and the weather. She had done what any person would have done. But then the rumours had started, saying that they had been having an affair. Even though they were never alone. Susanna was not stupid enough to put herself in that position. Yet no one would listen. The servants who had been present suddenly claimed loss of memory or that they had left the room at her request. Susanna had tried to protest, and nobody was listening.

Even if Adam Porter had defended her, it wouldn’t have made any difference. The damage was done. People didn’t want to hear anything else. Susanna was lost, while Margaret was laughing at her.

“This is not fair.” Lucy planted her clenched hands on her hips. “You shouldn’t be unfairly treated because you were being kind to someone.”

“And all I’ve done is dance with him,” Susanna murmured. “Talk to him. We’ve never been alone.”

“Not according to the rumours. Not that I believe them,” Lucy said defiantly. “You’re loyal to a fault.”

Even if Frederick didn’t necessarily deserve it. Susanna was sure that he had had multiple affairs, and her fears had been confirmed shortly before she was accused of having an affair. Frederick hadn’t liked being confronted and they had ended up in an argument. Susanna had told him to grow up, that he was married and he shouldn’t even be looking at another woman. She may not have had a huge affection for him, but she believed in the sanctity of marriage. It was meant to be between two people, not the husband, wife and several other people. Frederick hadn’t liked that at all. A week later, the rumours had started.

That was not a coincidence. Frederick had to be a part of this. He and Margaret had been seen whispering in corners. Susanna would not be surprised if Margaret was one of his many lovers, and that made her sick. How long had that been going on? Before their marriage? During? Susanna couldn’t believe Margaret could be so cold. They were supposed to be friends. Friends didn’t do this to each other.

Whatever was going on between her and Frederick Sinclair should never have happened. Was she jealous that Susanna had married Frederick and not her? Susanna didn’t know, but Margaret wasn’t about to admit it to her.

“Look, we need to go downstairs.” Lucy gave her an encouraging smile as she took Susanna’s hand and tugged her to her feet. “I’m going to be with you. I won’t leave your side. I promise.”

Susanna smiled. Then she hugged her friend.

“Thank you, Lucy. I don’t know what I would have done without you.”

“You do. You would have survived.” Lucy stepped back and squeezed her hands. “Because you’re strong.”

“I don’t feel strong right now.”

“I know.” Lucy led her towards the doors just as a footman came in without knocking. “She’s coming now. Tell the baron that he doesn’t need to provide her with an escort.”

The footman took this with a raised eyebrow and then left again, not closing the door. Susanna was still flummoxed by the blatant disrespect of the servants. But they were loyal to their master, not her. She was alone, even in her own house.

“I’ve got you,” Lucy said gently. “I’m with you. Always.”

***

“Reggie.”

Reginald looked up. Thomas was standing in front of him. The room was darkening, not quite dark enough for the curtains to be drawn. Reginald had no idea how long he had been sitting there, staring at the wall. He hadn’t even noticed anyone coming into the room to light the fire.

Now his friend was standing before him with his arms folded and a scowl. Reginald returned the scowl.

“How many times have you called me that over the last two months?”

“Far too many times.”

“You need to stop. You know I don’t like it.”

“How else am I going to get your attention?” Thomas snorted. “You need to get up and move around. You’re going to keel over if you stay sitting there with a glass in your hand.”

“How am I going to keel over when I’m sitting down?”

“You know what I mean.”

Following the death of Clara, Thomas had left for his home, only to return later in the day with a trunk, saying he was going to stay with him. Reginald hadn’t asked him to do that, and he would rather be left alone. But Thomas had been insistent. There was no talking the Earl of Granbury out of something when he had made his mind up.

If he was honest, Reginald was glad that his friend was here. He hated being alone. He had been alone even when Clara was alive. Her hot and cold behaviour with him had made him pull back, unsure what to do. He had loved her, but Clara didn’t know whether to make up her mind about him or not. Reginald had suspected that she cared greatly about someone else, and he could respect that, but he believed in marriage and that two people were the only ones involved in a marriage. No one else.

Clara obviously didn’t believe the same thing. Now she was dead after giving birth to her lover’s baby.

Reginald had tried to put the child out of his mind. But he couldn’t. The child hadn’t asked to be born into this. He was an innocent, and if his birth father knew about him, then Reginald knew that it would come back to haunt him. Quarterman would not let it go. However, the Nesbitt family was not going to let the baby go. They had named him Joseph and doted on him. Reginald had broken his vow to keep it quiet and told Anthony Talbot the truth. He owed that much to him. Talbot had been shocked, but he had promised not to say a word, not even to his wife. He had written to Reginald every week to let him know about Joseph’s progress.

Reginald knew that he shouldn’t, but he wasn’t cruel. He wanted to know he had done the right thing. And it sounded like he had. That gave him some relief.

But what he really wanted was to have the baby here. He had wanted a child, an heir if that was possible. Reginald and Clara hadn’t stopped being intimate, but those moments were far and few between. Clara lay there while Reginald tried to make love to her before kicking him out of the room. Except for that night after Quarterman had left, when she was all over him. Reginald had thought his patience waiting for Clara to respond to him had paid off. Now he knew why. She had been covering her tracks. She and Quarterman had been together intimately, and Clara knew if she became pregnant then Reginald would know. She hadn’t wanted her indiscretions known.

Then as she lay dying, she didn’t care. She had stuck a knife into Reginald’s heart and twisted. Hard. And Reginald was still trying to mend the wound. Maybe it would never heal. Clara had done a lot of damage.

That was something not even the strongest of men could handle.

Which was why Joseph was now Joseph Nesbitt instead of the heir of the Duke of Woodfield. While Reginald knew it wasn’t the baby’s fault, he knew he wouldn’t be able to love the child as he should. He couldn’t look at Joseph without seeing Quarterman’s face. It was best that he was raised by people who could give him the love and attention he deserved.

As well as a mother and a father.

“It’s been two months, Thomas,” he murmured.

Thomas’s expression softened. He sighed as he sat in the chair across from Reginald.

“I know.”

“Two months.” Reginald carried on as if his friend hadn’t spoken. “I’ve been cuckolded and had to watch my wife die after giving birth to someone else’s child. There’s…” He rubbed at his chest. “There’s just nothing there.”

Thomas nodded. His friend knew exactly what he meant. Even two months later, the shock was still there. But while he understood, he couldn’t completely comprehend what Reginald was going through. The man had never been in love. There had been girls, and they had been vying for the title of Countess of Granbury, but Thomas never saw them as anything more to pass the time. Reginald had told his friend that his rakish ways were going to get him into trouble, but Thomas had said he would cross that bridge when he came to it.

That hadn’t happened yet. And Thomas wouldn’t understand how it felt to love and lose in such a painful way. Reginald could only hope that if his closest friend ever found love that he chose wisely. Not make the mistake he did. People said his marriage was one of agreement – Clara’s family were wealthy and he was connected to the royal family, being a very distant relation of King George – but Reginald had wanted Clara for herself. She was beautiful, clever and a perfect hostess. When she wasn’t treating him coldly. Reginald had been willing to wait.

Look what good that had done him.

“Well, I’m here as long as you need me,” Thomas said.

“I know.” Reginald managed a smile in his friend’s direction. “Thank you for talking to the servants for me. I don’t think I thanked you back then.”

“You didn’t, but you were in no shape to do it yourself.” Thomas spread his hands. “As it was, Egan had already spoken to them. They promised not to say a word, dismissing the opportunity to get a pay rise. Your household respect and care about you more than you realise. More than I expected, certainly.”

More than Reginald expected or deserved. But he was touched. His household staff had kept everything going. His butler Quinn and the housekeeper Mrs Fairley kept the house going and his estate manager Atkinson was focused on the land and their farming acres. Things hadn’t collapsed now Reginald had spent more time sat in his study staring at the walls instead of getting on with life.

Things felt hollow now Clara was gone. She had taken everything from him. Reginald felt like he was living in a shell. Just empty.

There were days when he wished he hadn’t married Clara. Those days had started to stack up one after the other lately.

“I’ll give them a pay rise, anyway,” he murmured. “Their loyalty needs to be rewarded somehow.”

“If they’ll take it.” Thomas peered at him. “What do you think you’ll do now?”

“I don’t know.” Reginald rubbed at his eyes. They were sore. Then he rubbed his jaw. When was the last time he had had a shave? “My duty to my dukedom. Look after the estate. Make sure everything’s kept in order. Look after my relatives as I should.”

“The only relatives you’ve got are your Uncle Preston, Aunt Vivian and their children in Somerset, all of whom are fully grown,” Thomas pointed out. “And they’re not in need of being looked after.”

Reginald managed a slight smile. Aunt Vivian would certainly be cross if he did that. They didn’t want Reginald to look after them. The family was due to be coming in the next few weeks to sit with him while Reginald tried to get himself out of his depression. Reginald was grateful. His uncle and aunt were practical people. Their three sons, Reginald’s age and younger, had declared they were ready to help out. It would be time to start with the harvesting, and there were lots to do on the farm. Anything to make Reginald’s work less taxing.

His only family left were a godsend.

“Look, Reginald, just focus on yourself for now,” Thomas said gently. “The estate is still going to be here. You’ve got Atkinson running the place while you try and decide what’s going on in your head. He’s good at his job. So are your household staff. Quinn and Mrs Fairley certainly know how to look after the place.”

“So, it’s just me I need to worry about,” Reginald murmured.

“Pretty much. Do you want to do anything? Play cards, go out riding?” Thomas paused. “Have some female company?”

“What?” Reginald sat up in shock, but Thomas looked serious. He stared. “Thomas!”

“What?”

“I may hate my wife now, but I’m not cold. I won’t do that.”

In any case, the thought of being with a woman after what had happened didn’t sit well with him at all. He just didn’t have the inclination for it at all now. It didn’t stir anything in his belly. Except for disgust.

“All right.” Thomas shook his head. “It was just a suggestion. I wouldn’t have dragged you to a bordello.”

“I know you wouldn’t.” Reginald put his glass aside and stood, stretching his arms above his head. “But a ride sounds like a good idea. I think I need a bit of fresh air.”

Grinning, his friend jumped to his feet.

“I’ll get our horses saddled up. You need to get a bit of wind in your face.”

“I suppose.” Reginald waited a moment as the room swayed a little. “Just not too far.”

Thomas chuckled as he headed towards the door.

“Seeing as you’ve drunk two decanters already after dinner, I wasn’t going to take you too far from the house.”


“A Scandalous Match Against All Odds” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!

Susanna always thought that her life would be a straight pathway to happiness, but her plans went askew when her husband spread rumours of a scandalous affair with another man. Ηumiliated and ostracised by society, Susanna has to pick up her pieces and move on. When she ends up encountering a handsome and brooding Duke at a picnic, Susanna decides to defy the nasty gossip, even though she knows she is playing with fire. Will Susanna manage to break free of society’s norms and follow her passionate heart?

Reginald’s world turns upside down, when he finds out his wife’s baby isn’t his own. But, just before his life is about to fall apart, the unpredictable faith brings the dashing Susanna right in front of his eyes. This fiery divorcee brings some colour back to his life and, surprisingly enough, irresistible desire and passion. Soon, the sparks inside him cannot be denied and he has to take action. But is Reginald ready to let go of the pain that has swallowed him? When everything shows she is the one for him, can he let go of his tormented past and start all over again?

When false lies about the sinful couple threaten to ruin their reputation, they are all alone against a most cruel society. And as if that was not enough, Reginald has to fight with Susanna’s conscience to get her to stay. Both betrayed and hurt, will they dare to give love a second chance? Or will their love be lost in time?

“A Scandalous Match Against All Odds” is a historical romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.

Get your copy from Amazon!

15 thoughts on “A Scandalous Match Against All Odds (Preview)”

  1. I am curious as to the first meeting of Reginald and Suzanna and also the growth of Joseph. Interesting first chapters.

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