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'Twas the Night Before Scandal
Author: Merry Farmer

 

Chapter 1

 

 

London – Just before Christmas, 1887

 

Christmas was only a few days away, and Lady Beatrice Lichfield still didn’t have an engagement ring on her finger. That fact wouldn’t have caused her distress as she worked, tying bows with sprigs of holly for the decorations that were going up all over the rented hall in Clerkenwell, where the May Flowers were holding their charity event for the benefit of several London orphanages. In fact, not wearing jewelry of any sort was a great boon when it came to the delicate work she was required to do with her hands to create the decorations. And no shiny bobbles meant that some of the more mischievous orphans who were helping with preparations weren’t tempted.

But it had been months—no, years—since Bea had set her heart on Lord Harrison Manfred, Marquess of Landsbury. They’d been a part of the same group of friends ever since Bea joined the May Flowers and made the acquaintance of the likes of Lady Diana Pickwick, her very best friend in the entire world, Cecelia Campbell—who was now Lady Marlowe—and Bianca Marlowe—who was now Lady Clerkenwell and the hostess of the event. Through her female connections, Bea had been introduced to Harrison, and as far as she was concerned, it was love at first sight.

She’d always thought Harrison felt the same way, but as she stood at the long table, piled high with loose ribbon, boughs of holly and pine, wire to craft the decorations with, and bits and pieces of donations that had been delivered to the hall, staring at her sadly naked fingers, she heaved a sigh.

“What sort of silly, maudlin thoughts are going through your head to cause such a sigh?” Diana asked with a sardonic grin, stripping excess leaves off a sprig of holly for her decorations.

Bea glanced guiltily up at her friend, knowing full well what Diana thought of the situation. Diana was as brilliant and prickly as the holly she worked with—lovely and useful, but full of unexpected spikes and barbs. She was a beauty of the highest order as well, with dark hair and eyes, a clear, pale complexion, and a figure that made London’s finest modistes compete for her custom. By contrast, Bea considered herself sallow and skinny, with too much strawberry-blonde hair and eyes that couldn’t decide whether they were blue or green. No wonder Harrison was taking his time deciding whether he wanted to be shackled to her for the remainder of his life.

“I’m merely anxious that we won’t be able to finish decorating in time for the party on Christmas Eve,” she said, though she was a terrible liar. Her cheeks flared bright pink every time she so much as thought something dishonest.

Diana’s grin was all the proof she needed that her friend could see right through her. “Christmas Eve is still three days away, dearest. Which gives us ample time not only to finish decorating this hall, as shabby and cavernous as it is—” She glanced up at the rafters and around at the vast, bustling room in all its run-down glory. “—but to collect enough clothing, toys, and essentials to give half the orphans in East London the very merriest of Christmases.”

“You’re right.” Bea forced herself to smile and take a breath to clear her head. “I suppose I’m overly worried for nothing.”

Her attention was drawn to the door at the far side of the room as soon as she was finished speaking. Harrison had just entered, along with his close friend, Lord John Darrow, Viscount Whitlock—who also happened to be Diana’s arch-nemesis—carrying a tall pine tree between them. Bea’s heart ran riot in her chest, thumping against her ribs and causing her to gulp for breath. Harrison was simply the handsomest man she’d ever laid eyes on. He was tall and well-formed, like so many of the cricket players he and John idolized. His face was kindness personified, with soulful, hazel eyes that displayed his emotions as though they were a stage. He smiled at several of the orphans who were there to help with decorations as they rushed to see the tree, saying something to them that Bea couldn’t hear from the other side of the room, but that she was certain was full of sweetness and wisdom.

She’d longed to be Harrison’s wife from the moment he’d asked her to waltz with him at the ball where they’d met. His arms had felt so sure and certain around her, and the way he’d smiled at her and asked gentle, interesting questions to get to know her as they danced made her feel as though she were the most important woman in the—

“If you were any more obvious, the fire brigade would barge through the doors to douse you with ice water, Bea,” Diana snapped at Bea’s side.

“What? Oh, I—” Bea’s face flared even hotter. She snapped her head down to focus on the bow she was tying, only to discover that she’d made three knots and trapped her fingers between the ribbon. “I was just….” She gave up her attempt at an explanation with a sigh. Diana knew the truth of things anyhow.

“I don’t see how you could care for a man who spends so much of his time in the company of an absolute bounder,” Diana growled, staring daggers across the room at Lord John. Although, if Bea’s guess was right, the heat in Diana’s eyes every time she glared at John was of a different sort than what Diana imagined it to be. “I see it as a distinct lack of character that your beau has such wicked friends.”

“Lord John isn’t wicked.” Bea broke into a grin and sent Diana a sideways look. “And Harrison is simply wonderful for volunteering his time for the May Flowers’s cause. He’s a gentleman and a peer, and there are a great many other things he could be doing at Christmastime instead of decorating a public hall in Clerkenwell for the sake of orphans.”

“Yes, well, I’m certain that Bianca turned the thumb-screws on that entire lot, forcing them to help with preparations when they would much rather have been lazing about their club, smoking cigars and gambling.”

Bea laughed out loud at the image. “Harrison doesn’t care for smoking,” she said, her laugh turning into a sigh as she watched him and John anchor their tree in a stand and secure it. “He does care for charitable causes. Why, just the other day, at Lady Hartnell’s Christmas concert, he was telling me how passionate he is about supporting the downtrodden and funding those men and women who work on their behalf.”

Diana hummed suspiciously, her gaze set on John. “I would wager he said that in order to impress you. Most likely so that you would slip into the next room with him and let him take liberties.” A spark of longing lit her eyes as she spoke, still studying John.

“Harrison would never be so inconsiderate,” Bea said with a knowing grin. That grin faded quickly, though. Harrison hadn’t once taken liberties with her. The most passionate thing he’d done in the years that they’d known and flirted with each other was to remove her glove so that he could kiss her bare hand. And while that had taken her breath away, she would be lying to herself if she said she hadn’t wanted more.

“Why hasn’t he proposed yet?” she whispered passionately.

Her accidental outburst happened just as Bianca crossed behind her and Diana. Bianca stopped and rocked back to stand between Bea and Diana, staring across the room at Harrison and John as they finished with the tree, then rushed to help a man who had just brought several boxes of donations through the door.

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