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An Excerpt From

A SCOUNDREL'S KISS

Set in Restoration England

With an elegant flick of the wrist, the wide-brimmed, white-plumed hat sailed across the coffeehouse to land neatly on a peg near the dispenser's stall. A rousing and welcoming cheer went up from the patrons as a smiling Neville Farrington paused on the threshold and surveyed them with the magnanimity of a benign sovereign.

None of them, including the serving wench leaning against the counter and incidentally displaying more of her wares than her coffee, would believe that he had spent the past few hours striding about the city, attempting to overcome his shock, anger and frustration.

Now, to the amusement of the noble customers and disapproving glances from the few Puritans inside, Nevelle suddenly groaned pitiably, stumbled forward as if he had been stabbed and staggered toward his friends sitting at their usual table in the corner.

"Alas, my friends!" Neville cried as he reeled close to them, the back of his hand against his aristocratic brow. "A disaster has befallen me!"

Lord Fozbury Cheddersby, not the most discerning of mortals and, as always, beribboned and bedecked in the latest fasionable attire, no matter how ridiculous, obviously expected Neville to drop dead at his feet, for a look of stunned horror came to his round face.

"Odd's fish, Farrington!" he cried, jumping up and spilling his coffee onto his scarlet velvet breeches.

"Have a care, Foz!" Sir Richard Blythe snarled, his expression as severe as his dark woolen clothing, which made him look more like a Puritan than the cavalier he had been and the playwright he was. "Can't you see he's only acting - and poorly, too? Zounds, you've burned me!"

"An unfortunate baptism by coffee, Richard," Neville said with a sympathetic sigh as he moved his sword out of the way and lifted his leg over the bench to sit. "But that is what you get for criticizing my acting. Besides, what is a little singed flesh compared to my current dilemma?"

"You look as if you have not slept all night, or washed, either," Foz noted worriedly, absently mopping up the spilled coffee with his handkerchief of linen and lace, then just as absently shoving the damp cloth into his cuff.

"Oh, I daresay it cannot be so bad that Neville would neglect to wash, although he does need to shave if he's going to persist in going beardless as a boy," Richard remarked.

"Please, my friends, speak softly and give me your pity, for I am in agony," Neville pleaded as he covered his ears with his palms, shaking his head mournfully.

"Let me hazard a guess as to the cause of this agony," Richard answered coolly. "Minette Sommerall still refuses to consider your addresses."

"Ah!" Neville gasped, doubling over. He raised his mirthful eyes. "Another blow I had forgotten!"

As he spoke, he forced away any mental connection between mistresses and the astonishingly provactive kiss he had stolen from the lovely, shapely Arabella. "But this is not the time for idle chitchat," he continued. "I assure you, my trouble is very serious."

Lord Cheddersby scratched his head beneath his peruke. Unlike the other gentlemen seated at the long tables, he had quickly adopted this new fashion, too, perhaps because his natural hair lacked the fullness of Neville's locks.

"Can you not surmise from whence disaster comes, at least?" Neville asked.

"Your father?" Richard suggested.

"You are waking up at last, I see!" Neville cried triumphantly. "Exactly. My esteemed parent."

"He's not sent you any money."

"No, I should say not."

"You lost a considerable sum at Whitehall last night," the playwright noted calmly. "You ought not to gamble."

"Are you quite certain you're not a Puritan in disguise," Neville asked, "or an agent of my father? Besides, I usually win."

"It is easy to take such a lax view if one can afford it," retorted the former Royalist soldier.

"But I gamble only what I can afford to lose - well, most of the time," Neville replied with a wry grin even as he gave his friend a shrewd look. "Granted you lost Blythe Hall in the Interregnum, but not everything, and you make a pretty penny from your plays and poetry. You are not nearly as poor as you pretend, and I think you do that only so that you can borrow gambling money from me without risking your own."

Richard's eyes widened in genuine surprise.

"Ah, you knew not that I was on to you?" Neville inquired with a sly smile. Then he frowned. "Unfortunately, Richard, those days are over. I fear I shall have to be borrowing of you in time to come."

Foz, who had been immersed in grave and silent contemplation, suddenly exclaimed, "Your father has cut you off without another penny!"

"Foz, I shall offer to knock down the next person who claims you are a dunderhead, for you have reasoned it out."

Cheddersby's mouth fell open in surprise. "I...I have?"

"As close to as makes no difference," Neville confirmed.

"He...he can't do that," Foz whispered, stunned. "Can he?"

"It is most unfortunately true. My father arrived in London today to tell me, in his own delightful way, that I will not be seeing more money from him except an allowance he considers sufficient."

"Until he dies. then you will inherit."

Neville slowly shook his head. "No, Richard, upon that melancholy event, the inheritance is to go to his ward and her spouse, whoever he may be. I suppose I should be grateful he does not give it to her directly."

"What ward?" Richard demanded. "We have heard no talk of any ward."

"Perhaps if I could make out his writing, I might have."

"But you are his son!" Foz protested.

"True. And so I have my title and the old, decrepit family manor."

"Who is this ward?"

"Her name is Lady Arabella Martin, and she is the daughter of the late Duke of Bellhurst."

"The Duke of Bellhurst? Isn't he the fellow who became a hermit or a Quaker or some such monstrosity after his wife died?" Foz asked.

"A Puritan," Neville replied.

Neville could still remember how Arabella had spoken of the few memories she had of her mother and how he had wanted to offer her some kind of comfort. "Because my father always had certain Puritan sympathies." Neville's tone turned slightly bitter. "For all his condemnation of me, he could not renounce the more luxurious aspects of lordly life and convert completely."

"When did he become her guardian?"

"Three months ago, I understand."

"And she has managed to usurp your place in so short a time?" Richard asked.

"Apparently."

"How?"

"Yes, how?" Foz seconded him. "Is he quite right in the head? Perhaps he should see a doctor."

"I confess the same thought occurred to me, my friend. He claims to be sane. He also claims Lady Arabella is the most virtuous person he has ever met."

Richard's response was a scornful snort.

"I agree absolutely," Neville said. "No woman is truly virtuous."

He thought of Arabella's demure manner in the drawing room and the shy girl she had been in the garden.

Then he commanded himself not to be so naive. He had learned much of the ways of the world since he had come to London, including the true nature of beautiful women, all of whom used their beauty to advantage. Surely she was no different.

"However," he clarified, "she does possess an air of innocence aided by a certain countrified prettiness."

"An air of innocence, eh?" Richard observed. "I gather that, contrary to your father, you do not think she actually possesses that quality?"

As he recalled her passionate kiss, Neville wondered if what seemed innocent surprise really could have been. Perhaps she was simply a good actress, which might explain his own surprisingly intense reaction - and the reaction he was experiencing now, just from the memory.

"How can she, when she would take what is rightfully mine?" he answered, fighting to dominate his wayward flesh. "My father says she does not know what he intends, but I do not believe that for a moment. She has merely been too clever for him."

Richard nodded pensively.

"She's pretty?" Foz asked, all the gravity of Neville's situation apparently less important to him than this particular point.

"Yes, in a plain sort of way." Neville glanced at Richard. "She is like a lass off a hay cart, so she holds little appeal for me," he lied.

"If she is pretty," Richard said, "perhaps she appeals to your -"

"He will tell you," Neville interrupted, "as he told me, that such thoughts are indicative of a degenerate mind. I would say a worldly-wise mind, myself. Nevertheless, I do believe there is nothing of that sort between them."

"Who does your father think this alleged paragon should marry?"

"I gather he has not decided, except that the fellow must be as unlike me as possible." He gave Foz a pathetic look. "Foz, I truly am expiring for want of coffee. Can you not stand me a cup, given my sudden loss of income?"

"Of course, dear friend!" Foz cried, jumping to his feet and hurrying toward the serving wench as fast as his short legs would take him.

Neville turned to his more discreet companion with a guilty grin. "I shouldn't have done that. He is too genial a fellow."

"He doesn't mind and he can afford it. Besides, no one would give him any notice until you took him under your wing, so I think whatever he does for you is a fair bargain." Richard's face grew even more grave than usual. "This is all true?"

"Yes."

"And your father came here to tell you even though he hates London?"

Neville nodded.

"And then you quarreled."

It was not a question; it was a statement of fact based upon experience.

Neville sighed wearily. "Of course." He ran his hand through his hair. "I cannot understand it, but whenever I'm with him, I cannot resist the temptation to act in a manner I know will enrage him."

"Did you not tell him that there would be no family fortune at all if you had not taken matters in hand when you arrived in Lodnon?"

Neville shook his head. "To what purpose? He would not believe me."

"Then you should have sent him to the bankers and told him to consult with the estate steward. Good God, man, it's time somebody told him how you brought him back from the brink of ruin - a ruin his own extravangant ways were fast bringing about. Indeed, you should have told him years ago."

A stern, resolute expression appeared on Neville's face. "A man should do his duty without expecting thanks."

"That does not mean a man has to do it in secret."

"I had to, or he would have interfered." Neville shook his head. "I can scarce believe my cynical, censorious father would ever be taken in so completely by a pair of pretty eyes or a pair of anything else."

And he must not be fooled, either, he warned himself as he watched Foz making his way back to their table, his brow furrowed with concentration and his eyes on the hot brew.

"Thank you," Neville said, wrapping his hands about the steaming cup.

"So let me understand you," Foz said, like a student attempting to comprehend a particularly difficult lesson. "Whoever marries your father's ward will inherit his wealth when he dies?"

"Exactly. You could very well take my inheritance," he noted, glancing over his cup at Cheddersby.

Then Neville's expression changed as he turned to regard his other friend, who desperately wanted to buy back his family's estate. "Or you, Richard."

"You would be certain of a cottage on my land if I did," Richard replied, which was not at all what Neville wanted to hear.

"Richard, you wouldn't!" Foz gasped.

"Maybe he should," Neville replied, once again assuming a mask of light frivolity that was a distinct contrast to his true feelings. "I'faith, if I am to be replaced like a broken wheel or sick horse, I would far rather have the money go to someone I know than a stranger."

"You are no worse than any other man," Foz offered comfortingly.

Which reminded Neville of his father's admonition that if he was no worse, he was no better, either.

"I doubt there is a man in England capable of meeting my father's expectations," he muttered in his own defense.

Richard put his hand on Neville's shoulder in a rare gesture of sympathy. "He will see your merit one day."

Neville shrugged off Richard's hand. He wished he had kept silent about this father's intentions. Richard was a handsome fellow, and while his manner could be brusque in the extreme, Neville had noticed that many women found the bitter, sardonic cavalier fascinating.

Fortunately, another thought brought comfort and not a little relief: his father would surely never permit his ward to marry a playwright.

Restored to his usual jocund humor, Neville said, "I fear either he or I will expire before he sees me as anything but a complete waste of life and breath."

"Well, whatever you require, you know you have but to ask," Foz replied sympathetically.

"And you must share my lodgings," Richard added.

"Thank you, my friends, but he has not yet thrown me into the streets. It is a comfort to know I shall not starve if he does." Then he grinned. "I tell you, if my father is not proof against beauty, it is a warning to us all. Anyone might lose their head over a woman."

Foz nodded solemnly. "It is a sad thing when one's father loses his head."

"As I'm sure the king would attest," Richard agreed.

"I never meant anything of that sort!"

"A witty sally, though," Neville said, smiling at poor Foz, whose greatest desire was to be accounted a wit.

"Oh, I say, it was, wasn't it?" Foz replied, his thin chest puffed with pride. "What do you intend to do?"

"Do?"

"Yes, about her."

Neville felt as if somebody had upset a bucket of slops on his head. Why, of course he must do something. He could not sit idly by while his hard-won fortune went to another. and that is should be Foz who remined him of this duty...Well, his wits must have truly been addled with shock. Or arousal. "I shall have to show him that he is making a serious mistake."

"Will you challenge him to a duel?"

"He is my father, Foz. No matter how he infuriates me, I do not think killing him would be the best solution."

"Then what?" Richard demanded. "What will you do?"

Neville's eyes gleamed with the devilment his friends knew so well. "I shall simply have to prove that Lady Arabella is not as virtuous as he thinks."


This is the first book in Margaret's Restoration series.
The other books are A ROGUE'S EMBRACE and HIS FORBIDDEN KISS.
All are available in ebook format.


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