A PROPER SCANDAL - Chapter One
Less than a week to go now before A PROPER SCANDAL releases into the world. Here's your sneak peek this #TeaserTuesday. Meet Minnie Ravensdale, the finishing school runaway, and Alex Marwick, the charming Irish pickpocket.
As far as lies went, this was more in line with the hushed, traitorous currencies that collapsed empires, not the mere fib of a schoolgirl. But when faced with Mrs. Robards, there were no half- measures. If Minnie had learned anything during her short stay at the horrible school, it was how to hold her own against the old crow.
“Your uncle writes that you’re to leave at once.” The school matron drew her spectacles down her thin nose, training her beady eyes on Minnie.
“I see, I—”
“Sit up. Posture, Miss Ravensdale. Have we taught you nothing?” Early morning sun poured in through the stained window, framing the matron as if she were God, judging at the pearly gates.
Minnie straightened, crossing her ankles as she should. Her palms were sweaty. She considered wiping them across her lap just to madden Mrs. Robards, but remained still. She had traveled to England as a child with a tiger, after all. There was little that unsettled her spirit absolutely.
All except for the threat of being thrown into the French convent by her uncle when she was expelled from another finishing school less than a year ago. He was a smart man, smarter than his brutish appearance gave him credit. She had thought he would have had the foresight of her rebellion. Then again, he had a family of his own now. And if he wasn’t away on diplomatic duties in Baghdad, she bet he’d be at Burton Hall with the rest of the children, loving them, raising them as a good guardian and father should.
She was of an age now, as Clara, her former governess and now aunt reminded her. She was English aristocracy, her brother an earl. With that came duty. So Minnie, along with her brother James, had been shipped off to be polished so they could take their proper place in society after the family returned from their travels East three years ago. Clara had had twins, one of whom was very ill and needed constant care.
Sweet James was eager as earl to take part in such ceremony. He was always the dutiful son, the honorable nephew. Minnie, however...
“Am I to leave today?” She bit the inside of her cheeks to keep from beaming at Mrs. Robards. The dark study smelled of furniture polish and the paperwhites crowding the windowsill, hungry for spring light. The room filled Minnie with the memory of death.
Ladies didn’t heave exasperated sighs, nor did they strive to be any less than cordial. Mrs. Robards was terrible at following her own advice. With age came a certain permission, perhaps. And since the matron was already so well on in her years—
“Your things are being packed now.” Mrs. Robards picked up her cup of tea from the desk, eying Minnie as though she might puncture straight through to the truth. It wouldn’t be hard. If the woman had had a discerning eye, she might have been aware that the writing didn’t belong to one Bly Ravensdale, now Baron of Westchester, nor of his secretary. Minnie had paid the clerk at her favorite hat shop to pen the letter. “As you were already on probation at this school, I feel it is my duty to remind you, Miss Ravensdale, that reputation is all a woman has in society. And yours, well, yours is everything less than that belonging to a sister of an earl.”
“I blame being orphaned in India.” If the old woman wanted to wage a war of words against her, then heaven above, let her say so now. Besides, Minnie had suffered enough strikes of a ruler against her palms not to care much. She was a small girl of five when she arrived from India the first time. In the twelve years since, she’d faced worse than Mrs. Robards. “There is little to be done with a girl raised among adventurers.”
“No, nor girls with smart mouths.” Mrs. Robards took a sip of tea, then set it aside. “If you’re not careful, Miss Ravensdale, you will end up in some soppy romantic tragedy like those operas you so love to entertain the rest of the girls with. Men don’t wish for a wife who talks back.”
“Or ones with a mind of their own, I’m told.”
Mrs. Robards’s posture slackened as if Minnie’s response made the matron of the finishing school give up on domesticating a girl raised among wolves. “Youth and stupidity are exclusive. You will need a husband or you will be that woman. That is just the truth of our world, Miss Ravensdale. You will discover you cannot afford to believe in such frivolous luxury in time.”
As far as Minnie was concerned, husbands were entirely frivolous. Especially if a woman held strong convictions. The world was full of possibility for those willing to step outside their comfortable rules. That was the problem with the British aristocracy. It stood entirely on antiquated ceremony and ridiculed those who wished to live la vie de bohème. She had seen too much of the world to believe she was meant to sit in a parlor and embroider during the day, and serve her husband at night.
Minnie bit back her opinions. There were not welcome in a place such as Miss Martin’s Finishing School, anyway. “May I take my leave now?”
Mrs. Robards raised her hand, waving Minnie toward the door, her ashen face fallen in what could only be described as eternal frustration. The rest of the girls were in the hall when Minnie returned from exchanging her uniform for a traveling dress. A smug surge of happiness filled her chest as she lifted her chin and met the eyes of the others who would be left behind, all of them lined up as if in a receiving line for the queen. Their teasing had been unending, their words brutal. But it was Minnie who had freedom now. They could all have their silly balls and love affairs as far as she was concerned. What Minnie desired was far more.
She had practiced her escape for nearly a week now as she curled up in bed, keeping her back to the others and their ugly whispers. But now she found she didn’t want to give them the pleasure of parting words. Those would be for her to remember. They were all but branded in her heart as it picked up its beat when the door opened and the early morning buzz of London flowed in around her.
One of the maids helped Minnie with securing her hat, then supplied her with a jacket and gloves for the journey home to Burton Hall in Yorkshire. Little did they know that Minnie had no plans to be on that train.
She glanced behind her and bit back a smile, hastening down the stone stairs of the school. She felt Mrs. Robards’s eyes on her back, watchful as ever. Thirty-seven stairs felt more like three miles just then. The coachman waited at the bottom for Minnie, extending a shaky hand to help her into the carriage. She swept her gaze around the interior, satisfied with the blue valise on the floor. It would do the trick nicely. The others on the roof would be a loss, a small sacrifice for the greater cause at hand.
She settled back onto the velvet bench and straightened her skirts before drawing in a deep breath. “Oh.” Minnie fluttered her hand over her chest, the perfect imitation of ladylike distress. “There should be two bags with me in the carriage.”
The coachman stepped back, his hand on the carriage door. “There were only these by the door, miss.” His bushy white brows slanted downward, adding another crease to the wrinkles crowding his face.
“Silly me.” She forced her eyes to water as if overcome with worry. “I must have forgotten one in the hall as I made my goodbyes.” She sighed, wringing her hands in her lap for good measure. “They were quite rushed, you understand.”
If he was annoyed with her faux flightiness, he hid it well. “Of course, miss. Just a moment. Then we will be on our way.”
Minnie shifted over the bench seat, scooting closer to the other side of the carriage as soon as the door shut. She waited a beat, her hand resting on the handle, slowly pulling it down until the latch clicked open, her heart thrumming against her chest.
Any moment now.
When his foot scuffed against the first granite step up to the school, she closed her eyes and pushed the door open, grabbing the valise at her feet.
She jumped out into the street, creeping around the carriage. Minnie peered around the black lacquer, watching as the coachman approached the miserable schoolmarm. The two spoke at the doorstep, the busyness of Camden Street drowning out their exchange.
Go inside, go inside. Go. Inside.
The headmistress nodded, scowling down at the carriage, no doubt intended for Minnie and her incompetence, before the heinous woman followed the coachman inside to search for a bag that didn’t exist.
Minnie shot off, dashing through the foot traffic until she reached the first corner, then broke into a run and headed south to Leicester Square. She held her hat as she threw her head back and laughed, watching the beautiful morning transform into a sacred memory. She had plotted for months and finally she was free of that dreadful school, free to pursue her dreams, free of her guardian’s misguided plans.
Minnie Ravensdale was a proper runaway now.
They were faster than they looked—much.
Alex peeked over his shoulder, swatting away the line of laundry as he dashed through the alleyway. A petticoat stuck to his front, nearly taking off his cap as he tried to fling it off. His lungs burned as he took another corner, waiting for the sound of the chase to fade away. They were persistent, he’d give them that.
He’d come to hate the name he’d given himself. Though if he hadn’t stolen that silver platter from the shopkeeper this morning, maybe he wouldn’t be running blindly through the chaotic traffic of Whitechapel Street right now.
A carriage narrowly missed barreling into him, threatening to flatten him in the street. He missed one and barely escaped a second.
“Marwick! You filthy mick bastard. Mr. Davoren will hear of this, you’ll be sure of that, you will.” The man’s voice got lost in the street noise, carried only to Alex over the fetid air of factories and tenements.
Alex stumbled backward, scrambling for footing. The world was loud today, everything out of order, and yet he felt as though he could knock the city on its feet given the chance. He coyly jumped around the rear of a meat wagon and held on to its rails as it continued on its way.
His breathing even though his heart still raced, Alex jumped off at the next intersection, finding a corner to lean against and gather himself. The trouble would have been worth it if he hadn’t been caught. Instead the silver platter had been taken back and his pockets were all the more empty for it. That’s what happened when he caved to his hunger. His eyes became greedy. He wiped the blood from his lip and cheek, peering down the street. Little spoke of life this early spring day. The city was drab, the colors of his childhood. They spoke of the same misery. Almost.
And then there was a sight that nearly knocked him on his arse.
It was as if Heaven opened its gates and an angel had descended to walk among the filthy sinners of Whitechapel. A well-dressed angel who could put food in Alex’s stomach.
He pressed tighter against the brick façade of a butcher shop, his cap pulled low as he studied the girl. The fancy feathers on her hat stood tall, waving to passersby as if to declare: I have deep pockets. Her silk dress, livelier than the half-dead blooms of the flower sellers, was far too fine for an unaccompanied girl in this part of the city. Her boots were well-polished, free of holes and not worn from work. No doubt, she was a lady through and through.
If she was an angel, then Alex was the devil himself, pushing off the wall to trail behind. She was an easy target, a lamb in the company of prowling wolves. He hadn’t been the only one to notice, either. A stout man elbowed through the crowd, shouting after her.
The girl startled, dropping the handkerchief clutched in her hand. She bent to retrieve it, jostled by the others around her on the busy street. Alex shouldered through everyone until he was near enough to fetch it for her, his hand ready to snatch the reticule at her dress’s waist, before her eyes met his.
He sucked in a breath, struck. Men like Alex were meant for the shadows, not to be seen, certainly not to be studied as she did now. Two hazel orbs remained fixed on him, wide with fear and comprehension. She blinked and broke the moment, sprinting for a narrow alleyway in search of an escape. The bird wouldn’t find a way out, only empty pockets and torn petticoats. Cries for help had a way of falling upon deaf ears in this part of the city.
Feckin’ eejit. She’d get herself killed.
It’d be best to turn around. He had a mission here in London and he’d get nowhere if he went and landed himself in more trouble. But with her retreating figure and the last glimpse of that bright dress of hers, he followed. It was easy to keep pace with a drunk and a girl weighed down with heavy skirts. To her credit, she was handling the situation brilliantly, if not for the last turn into a dead end.
Alex skidded to a stop and peeked around the corner as the girl drew back a blue valise and struck her assailant. The stout man faltered a step, but it was no use. A taller man emerged from the shadowed doorway holding a rag. The men hadn’t seen Alex. He could slip away, search for another to pickpocket. He was a bastard for thinking so, especially when the rag was likely soaked in ether.
“Let her go,” he said, stepping out from the around the corner. He clenched his sore fists as the shorter man drew a knife. Today was not going in Alex’s favor, not that they often ever did.
She struggled in the taller man’s firm grasp, fighting against the rag meant to knock her out, until she spotted Alex. Her body went slack. He hoped she was holding her breath or she’d be down like a bag of bricks soon, none the wiser to the rest of the world.
The taller man dropped the rag, stepped forward, wiping his arm across his face, and then spat. “Bugger off.” He pulled the valise from her hand and a blade from his boot, waving it toward Alex.
He pushed up the worn sleeves of his coat and flexed his dirty fingers. “You’re in the company of a lady. Mind your tongue. And your hands.” Alex edged forward, raising his arms and eying the girl’s valise. It would be nice to have money lining his pockets for once. Maybe a warm meal, too.
“Back off,” the drunk threatened, his words slurred. “We found her. She’s ours.”
“All of her.” The taller man circled her with a keen eye.
She tilted her head and mumbled to the men, her words too quiet. Whatever they were, they weren’t appreciated. The drunk dragged her into a tight hold and drew a blade against her throat. A small stream of blood trickled down the column of her neck, staining the lace collar of her dress.
Alex charged forward, catching the taller man by surprise with a fist under his chin. The man’s head snapped back, he wavered, then crumpled to the ground. Alex reached around and pried the blade from the others man’s hand, saving the girl from having her neck slit open, then shoved her aside.
She scurried over to her valise, as Alex circled the second man. For a drunk, he had a stubborn hold of the ground.
“Well, hit him!” She flung her hands out into the air, flapping like a bird about to take flight. The weight of the bag almost toppled her as it swung back and knocked against her small waist.
He never saw the drunk barreling forward until he slammed Alex to the ground. The air rushed from his lungs as he collided against the cobbled alleyway. The man was saying something above him, but the words weren’t registering over the ringing in his ears.
The man settled above him, snarling, his face as red as a tart’s lips. Jagged metal rasped against his neck. Alex’s stomach churned at the man’s foul breath, trying to work out how best to escape with his head still attached. Then the man’s eyes widened and he collapsed onto Alex, as the blue valise swung overhead, followed with a loud thwack.
The girl rolled the man off Alex with a shove, standing there with a smug smile. “Well,” she said, offering a hand to help him up.
He stared at the dark blood dripping down the flawless, clean skin of her neck. This was no place for a girl like her. He ignored her hand and stood on his own. “Come on,” Alex said, walking to the brick wall at the end of the alley, side-stepping the fetid puddles. If he saw her to safety, then he could try nicking her purse as reward for his efforts without having to behave like a complete cad.
“I’m not lost,” she said, staring steadfast into his eyes.
Alex pulled his cap lower and stepped back. “They’re going to wake up soon,” he said, scaling the drain pipe. “I wouldn’t be around when they do.”
The girl paused, considering him.
“They’ll strip you bare and leave you dead in the gutter.” He rubbed at the ache throbbing at the back of his head.
“I’m not daft.” She edged closer, her eyes fixed on the fallen men, her lips curled in disgust. “I’m—”
She kicked one of the men in the gut with her polished boot. “No. I’m finished now.” The girl clapped her hands together as if she were dismissing the whole mess. “If you would show me a way to escape, I’d be thankful.”
The man waved for her to scale the wall and follow. Minnie took no caution in guarding her annoyed glare. She didn’t appreciate his herding her around like a wayward sheep.
“Give that to me,” he said, reaching down for her valise as she struggled with the weight of her skirts to shimmy up the drain pipe.
“You could run off with it and leave me with nothing.”
“It’s possible.” He leaned closer, his weight divided over the narrow brick wall. “Except I just saved you from those brutes. Have a bit of faith, yeah?”
“I don’t need rescuing,” she bristled back, holding the valise out of his reach. Let him lean forward and fall if he wished to wrestle it free. Minnie hadn’t run away to be ordered around by a complete stranger. She was ordered around by every other person in her life all ready.
“I thought you’d say something to that effect.”
She swiped her gloved hand over her throat, feeling the fresh sting of a scratch. Her hand returned red, stained with enough blood to signify it more than a scratch. When she started this morning, everything seemed possible. She had London in her hands and her dream of dancing finally within her grasp. Except the day was growing late and what she thought had been a few wrong turns had turned into being thoroughly lost and nearly mugged.
For the niece of an adventurer, she should be better with directions.
The man lifted an eyebrow as if to declare: you’re foolish and need me. She wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of carrying on like the rest of the girls her age. Minnie Ravensdale was made of stronger stock. So instead, she lowered her hand and smiled back at the man, defiant.
“There he is! Marwick!” a man shouted from the opposite end of the alley. “And look, he’s got that chit with him.” Behind him, a pack of hooligans gathered, their eyes hungry as if she were a Sunday roast.
With a nervous swallow, Minnie shoved her valise into the stranger’s hand. “We can go now.” She scrambled up the drain pipe without an ounce of grace, looking over her shoulder as the group climbed to their feet and rushed forward. With a wave of her bloodied glove, she smiled, laughing as her taunt provoked them closer.
Her rescuer, if he proved himself as such, tugged hard on her boot and cut her teasing short. Minnie lost her balance and toppled over the wall.
He tensed as she landed into his arms. “Do you want to die?” he asked, holding her tight against his rough coat.
She gazed up at him, the world swirling around her. “No.” She thought to say more, but she was lost at repeating his words, the lulling cadence causing a smile as they passed over her lips.
He stared down at her, blue eyes dark and burning as if she had just attacked him in the alley. “You’re well on your way today.” As quickly as they settled into the quiet moment, he dropped her feet and righted her. “Right, let’s go.” Before she could answer, he grabbed her bag and wrist, then led them forward into the maze of dark alleys ahead. They weaved in and out of the crowds, dodged behind lines of drying laundry, ducked into shops—anything to put distance between themselves and the thugs.
The stranger finally dragged them behind the cover of some towering crates.
“We’ve lost them. For now.”
Minnie peered around the crates, licking her lips as she struggled to catch her breath. Her hair had come unpinned and her hat was flopped to one side, the satin bow excelling at nearly choking her to death. She tried to right her hat with her shaking hand as the man stood from resting on his knees, but she stopped as he flashed her a smile. It was too bad the hair beneath his ratty cap was so unnaturally blond and dull. It ruined his rugged handsomeness.
“We can’t stay out on the streets. How much have you got?”
“I don’t even know your name.” She stopped untying the hat ribbon. “I’m not going to volunteer how much money I have.”
“I didn’t steal your bag,” he pointed out, reaching into his pockets. He fished out a few pence. Not a promising amount.
He made a fair point, but Minnie was far from convinced that the stranger had noble intentions. He didn’t appear like the reputable sort, not with his soot-stained hands and tatty clothes. And especially not with a split lip and a fresh bruise across his cheek. “I’m sure you’ll expect something because of your efforts.”
He leaned one arm against the stack of crates, crossing his long legs at the ankles. “You could give me a kiss for my troubles.”
“I knew it!” Minnie cried, picking up her valise and swinging it into his stomach.
He fell forward, coughing at first before it turned to a deep guffaw. “I was only having a laugh,” he said, red-faced as he straightened.
“Oh, to be sure.” Minnie drew up her hand to drum at her lips. She frowned when she noticed the red stains. Her best pair of gloves were perfectly ruined now. “What’s your name?” she asked, dropping her hands to her side.
“Alex.” He rubbed his midsection with a scowl. “How much do you have?”
“You’re a pushy fellow. I don’t appreciate it one bit.”
“I don’t like being chased across London because of some silly runaway,” he countered, leaning forward with an arched brow. “We’re even.”
“Fair enough.” She wasn’t so naive to admit that this man, however pushy and annoying, could help solve her temporary setback—a protector of sorts until she saw herself settled. Minnie opened her purse and counted quietly, then cut the tiny sum in half as a precaution. “Eight shillings.”
“Eight...” he said, trailing off as his thick brows furrowed. He studied her for a moment, grabbing her arm once again with his rough hands. Minnie tried to shake him off, but his grasp was firm, even as he picked up her valise and peered around the crates. “Come on.”
“Where are we going now?” He ignored her question, his hand tightening on her wrist. “Do you know where you’re going?”
He didn’t slow his pace as he flashed her another smile over his shoulder. “No. New to town myself.”
They stopped in front of a blue clapboard building, the clapboard bulging with age and leaning toward the cobbled streets. A window opened across the way and a woman tossed out a bucket of foul smelling liquid, only just missing a cart rambling by on the street.
Minnie scrunched her nose and surveyed the others passing by as Alex knocked on the door. “We don’t have enough for two rooms,” she protested, reading the sign above the door.
He knocked again then straightened his coat’s lapels and removed his cap. “We aren’t getting two rooms.” He straightened as Minnie stood there, gaping like a fish out of water. “Mrs. Marwick,” he said, winking cheekily. “Close your mouth, darling.”
Before Minnie could reply, the door opened revealing a gray-haired woman with a crooked tooth piercing her bottom lip. “What do you want?”
“Me and my wife would like to rent a room.”
The woman smacked her lips around as she worked her tongue into the rotting crevice between her two front teeth. She scratched her head for a moment, barking a laugh. “Sure you are.”
Alex looked over at Minnie, his eyes squinting, his fingers drumming along the side of his leg. “We’ve eloped and our parents won’t be none too happy to discover the fact. A week is all we need.”
“Newlyweds?” the woman balked again. She looked like a dying vulture. Perhaps sounded like one too, though Minnie had never encountered that before.
“That’s right. Oh, I’m afraid I didn’t catch your name,” Minnie said with a charming smile.
Alex draped her hand over his arm, covering her blood soaked glove with his hand. The picture of besotted sweethearts, no doubt.
“Cutpold, Madame Cutpold.” She coughed, surveying the couple standing below on the doorstep. “The room’s fifteen shillings a week, plus coal and food.”
“Wonderful,” Alex said, beaming at Madame Cutpold. “Isn’t that lovely, darling?”
There wasn’t a thing lovely about the place at all. The old buzzard was robbing them blind. Minnie spread her lips into a large smile until the apples of her cheeks ached from the effort of it.
“Come in then, come in,” the woman croaked. She shuffled over the worn floorboards, coughing so loud it sounded as if she would deposit her lungs onto the floor.
Minnie stifled her laughter as they passed the other guests, all of whom appeared to be of a disreputable sort. She had never been to a house of ill repute, having been on all accounts a lady until now. But judging by the vast sea of bosoms and various stages of undress, Minnie could check that off as how to ruin one’s reputation properly. Guilty by association.
At least no one would think search for her in a place such as this.
After two flights of impossibly steep and rickety stairs, the woman shoved a key into Alex’s hand. “At the end of the hall,” she said. “I’ll be around at the end of the week to collect rent.”
Minnie plucked the key from Alex’s hand as he laughed. The door stuck, so she shoved her hips against it until it flew open. Alex stood beside her in silence.
The room slanted toward the street to such a degree that she thought herself overcome with vertigo. The milky-colored walls were cracked and peeled, exposing the horsehair beneath. A picture of the Mother Mary hung crooked above the bed in a small frame, the glass shattered into a spider’s web. Two small windows on the opposite wall, covered thick in dust and grime, overlooked the foot traffic of the street below. A table and two chairs sat between them.
It was the sad excuse of a bed that garnered her concern. “This won’t do.” Minnie threw her hands on her hips. The bed sagged and the linens appeared as if they had been washed around the time of Napoleon’s capture.
“I’m no gentleman.” Alex deposited her bag by the washstand in the room’s corner. “I’m not sleeping on the floor.” He paced the room, examining the windows and walls as if he needed another escape route in addition to the door.
“Then we’ll take turns,” Minnie said. “But tonight, I’m sleeping in that thing that resembles a bed.”
“I can’t have a say?” He pulled off his cap and ruffled his fingers through his blond hair. It looked so unnatural against the rest of his features that for a moment, she thought he was harboring a secret of his own.
“I wasn’t allowed one in marrying you. I’m afraid it’s only fair.”
“I couldn’t be parted from you, darling,” he said, flashing a smile. “Besides, we’re here only for the night. You’re going home come morning.”
She didn’t run away for one night of freedom, to stay in a whorehouse somewhere in the East End of London. If that were the case, she would have picked something grander, like a room at the Savoy. “The floor,” Minnie said, pointing the dusty boards. “If you’re nice and agree to leave me alone, I might spare you a pillow.”
“I’ll be a generous wife if you act the part of a husband with a straying eye and leave me alone.”
“Deal.” He grasped her hand and shook with such vigor she found herself laughing at the absurdity of the day. What a great escape. What an adventure.
“Oh, Alex,” she said, collapsing back onto the bed in a peal of laughter. She blew away the ostrich feathers from her hat bowing over her face. “What now?”