The Trouble with being Wicked
Scandalous Spinsters Book 1
Size: 5.20 x 8.00 in
He put her on a pedestal…
When Celeste Gray arrives in the sleepy village of Brixcombe-on-the-Bay, she thinks she’s one step closer to leaving her notorious past behind. She even suspects the deliciously handsome—if somewhat stuffy—viscount next door is developing a tendre for her. That is, until the day Ashlin Lancester learns she’s not the unassuming spinster she’s pretending to be.
Now she has farther to fall
After a decade of proving he is nothing like his profligate father, Ash is horrified to have given his heart to a Cyprian. He launches a campaign to prove his attraction is nothing more than a sordid reaction he can’t control. But he soon learns that unlike his father, he can’t find comfort in the arms of just any woman. He needs Celeste. When he takes her as his mistress, he’s still not satisfied, and the many late nights in her arms only make him want more…
Celeste Gray could think of three reasons the dilapidated cottage reminded her of a man: It didn’t meet her expectations. She couldn’t anticipate spending the rest of her life with it. And it had cost her far more than it was worth.
A wry smile tugged her lips. And, as with a man, despite the many ways it had disappointed her, she still felt giddy to see it.
“Where shall I put your baggage, miss?” Tom, a wavy-haired footman she’d hired on in Exeter, cast a worried glance at the moldering roof of her new home. As they’d pulled into the drive, she’d seen an alarming crack in the northern wall, too.
He indicated her dusty carriage laden with hatboxes and trunks. “That is to say, I wonder if you mean to wait for the rest of the staff to arrive. They’ll have this place to rights in a trice.”READ MORE
“Likely not!” Elizabeth Spencer crowded into the doorway beside Celeste. As usual, she was heedless of her pregnant belly, which bumped into Celeste’s elbow hard enough to jostle her out onto the step.
“The house needs to be opened properly,” Elizabeth continued. “Aired and washed, or perhaps burnt down. For goodness sakes, there are sparrows in the rafters.”
Celeste’s lips twitched. While Elizabeth had been raised on an estate in Shropshire, Celeste had lived her entire life in London. A few nesting birds sounded like a diverting facet of country life, not cause for hysterics.
And it would be fitting to make a jest about birds of paradise vying for a nest. But Elizabeth had little tolerance for silliness these days, and a glance at their new footman proved he was listening. Tom might take note of the innuendo, along with a great many other hints. Celeste needed to mind her tongue from now on, if all were to go as planned.
She settled for drawling, “I’m sure they’re just as outraged by your presence as you are by theirs, Mrs. Inglewood.”
Elizabeth moved further into the doorway until she almost joined Celeste on the step. She’d always been the more striking of them, but her brown curls shone now, and the daring cut of her carriage dress enhanced the effects of pregnancy on her already-fine bosom.
She offered their footman a brilliant smile. “I’m sure they’re not. Nevertheless, Tom will have the rafters clear soon enough. He looks to be a strong lad with a steady pair of hands. You’re just waiting for an opportunity to please us, aren’t you, Tom?”
“Elizabeth!” Celeste’s humor disappeared. Even heavy with child, Elizabeth could stop a man at twenty paces. Yet she would never sink to dally with a man in her employ, which made any flirtation with their besotted footman cruel. Perhaps more important than Tom’s feelings, however, her banter was unseemly. They must care about that now.
Elizabeth trailed a slim hand through the air like a French courtesan, waving off Celeste’s warning. Strong-willed and wealthy in her own right, she rarely gave a fig for Celeste’s attempts to counsel her. “I fear ’tis not just birds we must contend with. You must cry foul. That man, Lord Whatever His Name Is, has fobbed one off on you. Mark my words, he’s counting his guineas and laughing himself silly at you this very moment.”
“I’m sure he’s not thinking of me at all,” Celeste replied, partly because Lord Trestin could have no idea he’d conducted business with a woman, let alone her, and partly because viscounts surely had better things to do than cackle over dishonest transactions.
Lord Trestin. Once again, she had the disquieting sense she knew the man, or knew of him. In her line of work, that could well be the case. But try as she might, she couldn’t place him.
When she turned to ask Elizabeth if she knew the viscount, her friend released a long-suffering sigh. “No, indeed not. Most men spare us no thought unless we’re directly under them.”
Tom’s eyes widened.
Celeste placed a firm hand on Elizabeth’s arm and thrust her friend toward the door. “Tom, please check the straps on our baggage. After I have another look about, Mrs. Inglewood and I will take rooms in the village until the cottage can be made habitable.”
With that, Celeste pushed Elizabeth inside the darkened house and pulled the door closed. “Mind your tongue, Elizabeth! We can’t have our staff thinking us vulgar, for that is precisely why we hired new domestics in the first place.”
It was impossible to see her expression, but Celeste imagined Elizabeth’s gray eyes narrowed. “I said nothing untrue.”
Celeste expelled a frustrated breath. “That doesn’t give you license to behave shockingly. We must break ourselves of the habit of being—”
Celeste pressed her lips together. “Precisely.”
Elizabeth made a satisfied hmph.
Celeste forced herself to calm. They’d been friends for a decade or more, and Celeste couldn’t regret their attachment. Sometimes, she even fancied they were sisters, of a sort.
At other times, she could easily scream. Elizabeth had a good heart, and she was good fun, but she could be stubborn and selfish. Pregnancy had only worsened her intractability.
When Celeste had control of herself, she explained—and not for the first time—“If we become pariahs here, your baby will never escape the stigma of her birth. Is that what you wish?”
“I know what is best for my son. Really, Celeste.”
Celeste simmered silently. Leave it to Elizabeth to act the authority on a subject she cared nothing about.
Fabric rustled as Elizabeth folded her arms over her protruding stomach. “I can see you won’t believe I’m committed to this endeavor without proof. Very well, for once I shall pretend to be interested in domestic matters. This house is a shambles. No amount of effort can make it habitable. I strongly suggest we cry off.”
“It’s not as bad as that.” But even as the protest passed Celeste’s lips, a chill swept from the front parlor into the hall.
“You see? We’ll freeze to our deaths. And what of the baby?” Elizabeth patted her rounded belly with just enough maternal concern to seem convincing. Given her tendency to behave as though she wasn’t increasing, Celeste found it a manipulative attempt to sway the argument.
But as much as she’d like to accuse Elizabeth of using her confinement as an excuse to return to London, Celeste couldn’t disagree with her on this. She’d lectured Elizabeth on the need to consider her unborn child so often that claiming this drafty, leaking cottage was an acceptable place to raise an infant was impossible, even if she loathed giving up when they were so close.
And they were very short on time.
Celeste attempted to sound convincing. “Once we have a warm fire going in the grate, and a few men to make repairs, I’m certain we’ll be comfortable here. A week or two is all we need to settle ourselves in.”
Yet she was surprised to hear wistfulness in her voice. Devon could become more than a respite, if only her friend would see its charm. The gently rolling landscape sectioned by neat hedgerows and limestone cottages sparkled with promise. All that remained was for them to introduce themselves without incident and they would be free to start over, as though the last twenty years hadn’t affected them at all.
When Elizabeth spoke, her voice sounded just as contemplative. “What if we don’t have a week?”
Celeste rested her hand over Elizabeth’s. It was the first time she’d heard Elizabeth acknowledge what was to come, and her heart warmed.
A solid kick thumped hard enough for Celeste to sense it. The babe! She’d never imagined herself with a child of her own. A woman in her position simply didn’t. Nevertheless, even Celeste could marvel at the new life stirring beneath her hand. Impossible to think in just a few short weeks, they’d not be alone.
“The midwife said you had perhaps a month,” she reminded Elizabeth. “To be safe, you ought to begin your confinement as soon as we settle into the Hound and Hen. You needn’t return here until I have everything sorted.”
Elizabeth nodded, her silence thick with unspoken fear.
Celeste kept her own worry private. Elizabeth was frighteningly close to term. She hadn’t wanted to leave London, and so had put off retiring to the country until the last possible moment. When she’d finally capitulated, they’d left as quickly as Celeste could have their things packed into the carriages, lest Elizabeth change her mind. They’d brought only Celeste’s trusted housekeeper, Hildegard, and a few domestics they’d hired along the way.
They had never tried to summon a midwife. They hadn’t encountered a nursemaid, or even a governess. It would be weeks before someone with experience could be acquired from London. What did she know about babies? What did either of them know?
“I’m scared,” Elizabeth whispered, her icy fingers stiff in Celeste’s hand.
Celeste gave her hand a squeeze. Surely it was better for Elizabeth to be wary than complacent. So much could go wrong in childbirth, and then there was the baby to raise after that. This acknowledgement of the risks was better than Elizabeth acting as though everything would go on as it had. As if it could.
“I won’t leave you alone,” Celeste reassured her. “Now, let’s make our way to the village before the sun sets. I’ve no desire to wander an unfamiliar area in the dark.”
She turned to open the door and noticed a beam of hazy light breaking through the blackness. “Do you see the sunlight, Elizabeth? If we can plug the hole before we leave, it shouldn’t be as cold when we return.”
“I suppose it’s the least we can do,” her friend replied with a touch of resignation. “But I vow there is much more to be done than that.”
“In time,” Celeste said, refusing to be goaded into another argument. This was the closest she’d ever come to hearing Elizabeth thank her, and she wanted to savor it.
“There’s a sewing basket over here.” Elizabeth returned and held a wadded cloth toward Celeste. “You must be the one to do it, as I cannot possibly climb up in my condition.”
Celeste dragged a low table beneath the damaged rafter and stepped onto the dusty surface, newly determined to make this house a home. Elizabeth finally acknowledging her responsibility was reason enough to remain here. The house seemed to spark acceptance in her friend, perhaps making the inevitable no longer a matter of if, but when.
The front door creaked just as Celeste reached her hands overhead. “Mrs. Inglewood?” Tom called into the hallway. “You have a visitor.”
A man’s broad form filled the doorway. Celeste had been caught in plenty of compromising positions. Standing tiptoe on a tabletop, her pale hands stretched upward while her hips swayed to maintain her balance, wasn’t one of them.
“Good afternoon.” The man’s cultured voice had the soothing effect of a fine French brandy. It warmed her from her belly to the tips of her toes—the worst sort of feeling, in her line of work.
“Mrs. Inglewood, I presume?”
* * *
“I’m afraid not,” the silhouette standing atop the low table replied. Her lithe arms dropped and folded across her breasts, obscuring the distracting curves that had stopped Ashlin Lancester, Lord Trestin, in his tracks.
Ash quietly breathed a sigh of relief. This unexpected temptress wasn’t Mrs. Inglewood, Captain Inglewood’s wife. Even if it had been seven years since he’d last allowed himself the amorous company of a woman, he hadn’t grown so monstrous that he’d looked lustfully at a lady whose intimate favors rightfully belonged to another man.
He clenched his fist at his side. His vision hadn’t adjusted to the dimness of the room, but he could make out enough to see there were two of them. “Them” being women. “Women” being cause for alarm.
“I’m Lord Trestin,” he said, for courtesies must be observed, no matter how alarmed he was at the notion of two women encroaching upon his carefully developed sanity.
“A pleasure, my lord,” the temptress replied in a velvety voice. And she was a temptress, by God, not the gentle lady he might have expected to encounter, had he expected to encounter a woman instead of Captain Inglewood. This apparition, whose full breasts and tiny waist had been clearly outlined by the light above her, was an altogether different creature than the kind usually found in Brixcombe-on-the-Bay.
He’d lived here his entire life, so he ought to know.
“I’m Miss Smythe.” Her arm extended toward the second woman, who appeared enormously enceinte. “She is Mrs. Inglewood.”
So Mrs. Inglewood was here. He trained his sight on the rounded silhouette. If only he could see in the dark, he could form a more complete picture of them. His new neighbors. Who were women.
What the devil was going on? Captain Inglewood hadn’t mentioned anything about a wife or female wards or women of any kind in his correspondence—Ash would have remembered if he had. When a man was as plagued by females as Ash was, he took note of that sort of thing.
He stopped himself there. Even he could hear how mistrustful he sounded. Just because there were two women and ten hatboxes didn’t mean he ought to be suspicious. He’d stopped off here to welcome his new neighbor, not frighten the man’s thoroughly pregnant wife. The least he could do was inquire after Mrs. Inglewood’s health, for likely she should be in bed, not traipsing across the moors unattended. The poor woman must be exhausted standing this long.
Ash stepped into the front parlor and easily navigated around the late vicar’s favorite chair. It was a parlor he knew as well as his own, perhaps better, and now it had a new owner to restore it. One who would soon have a child to bring laughter and innocence back into a home that had stood empty for far too long. He ought to be happy, not quiz the women to discomfort.
The smile he pasted on his face felt like skin stretched over his teeth. Smiling wasn’t asked of him often. He likely should practice, for he understood London’s debutantes appreciated a bit of charm, and despite his decision to remain celibate these last few years, eventually, he must take a wife.
There were scant weeks left for him to acquire any charm before he made his debut into the ton.
He inclined his head toward the tall woman before him. Not the temptress, but the second woman. Despite her advanced condition and his complete lack of experience in such matters, Mrs. Inglewood held herself with a negligence that seemed out of character. As though a swollen belly had been placed on an otherwise exquisite woman, and she took no notice of it.
It was an uneasy feeling he had, but one he couldn’t shake. A soon-to-be mother ought to look…maternal. Shouldn’t she?
He nodded to her. “The pleasure is mine, Mrs. Inglewood.” He tried to sound as though he meant it. Likely his wariness resulted from his surprise at finding them here alone, and was not an actual cause for concern. And yet…
“When I saw a carriage headed toward the old Amherst property,” he said to her, “I expected to find your husband. I didn’t see him in the drive. Is Captain Inglewood about?”
Both women stiffened.
Ash took a wider stance against the ancient floorboards, as though preparing for a quarrel. Distrust was habit for him, he reminded himself. Not a cause for alarm.
Then Miss Smythe said, “The captain is detained,” in that slow, curling voice that made him think of hot baths and bed sheets, and he knew she was lying.
Mrs. Inglewood glanced at her companion. “Yes, my lord. The captain is at sea, where he much prefers to be.”
Ash had been the sole guardian of his sisters for seven years. His ability to detect falsehoods was sharper than he’d ever wanted it to be.
“I see,” he said, maintaining an even tone. “Will he be coming soon, then? I apologize if I’ve confused things. I expected him at the end of next week, otherwise I would have had the house opened for your arrival. It’s dreadfully cold in here.”
Miss Smythe’s voice coursed through him as if she’d whispered directly into his ear. “Oh, do be sure that I had no idea the cottage was in such a deplorable state, my lord, or certainly I would have sent word ahead.”
The hair on the back of his neck stood straight, as if she’d touched him. But he had neither a desire to be aroused nor an interest in being set down.
“Deplorable?” He caught on the word that made him feel he’d done something wrong. “I meant to open it, as I said, and I would have done had I known to expect you. I regret any inconvenience I have caused.”
Mrs. Inglewood’s voice sounded more like a pout than a reproof. “There’s a wretched hole in the roof. It quite puts me out to think what manner of creature might have crawled through it. If I discover a bat hanging alongside my gowns, I hope you’ll feel inclined to offer recourse.”
Monetary recourse? He stood taller. Oh, he understood their game now. They were about to be sorely disappointed. He wouldn’t be manipulated by a pair of softly rounded specters with sirens’ voices.
“There is no hole,” he said firmly.
A flash of white teeth gave Miss Smythe’s smile away. “Oh, but there is,” she assured him. “I simply lift my hand like this,” she slowly, ever so slowly, raised her palm toward the thatching, “and a cool breeze reassures me of my correctness.”
“Impossible there is a hole, or impossible you do not know of it?”
Her languid teasing knocked his thoughts into a jumble. Too late, he realized that must be where the light was coming from. He must have lost his senses completely not to have noticed it.
He steeled himself against her assault as she continued, “You may join me on this tabletop, my lord, if it will set your mind at ease.”
Oh? His first instinct was to cross the room and climb up beside her. If that was what she wanted, far be it for the gentleman in him to decline. She’d have to cling to him for balance. He’d be sure to hold onto her tightly, too. But just the fact that he’d envisioned such a shocking scenario was testament to the dangerousness of this woman.
When had he ever seriously considered giving in to something so thoroughly inappropriate?
“Who are you?” he demanded. He couldn’t help but feel he deserved answers from these women. Honest answers.
Miss Smythe’s chin notched. “I’m Miss Smythe. Or do you mean what am I doing here? I’m Mrs. Inglewood’s companion.”
She stopped at that, perhaps expecting that as a gentleman by birth—he almost smiled; if not by his manners, which he must admit, were not in top form today—he wouldn’t probe further.
He shouldn’t probe. He should remember himself and not allow her forwardness to provoke him, as was too often an occurrence with his sisters. A true gentleman would no more question her character or demand her references than he would ask her to leave. Especially as she’d done no wrong, at least nothing that he could accuse her of directly. Did crawling into the darker recesses of his mind, places even he’d forgotten existed, count as wrong?
He had a feeling that everything about her was wrong. He had no proof, yet he sensed it. Surely a paid companion would be meek, and not slide her eyes down his body in frank assessment.
He could feel her assessing him, despite the darkness. Like fingernails drawing along his skin, he sensed the path of her eyes over his shoulders, his hips, his—
Who was this woman?
“Miss Smythe was kind enough to accompany me in my confinement,” Mrs. Inglewood said, coming forward.
He blinked. He’d almost forgotten her, so wrapped up was he in Miss Smythe.
Silently, he cursed the weakness that made him aware of Miss Smythe at all. He would not be like his father. He would not.
Mrs. Inglewood took another step toward him. “There is so much to organize when one must pick up and move to the country! And then our second carriage broke a wheel on the way, which as you might imagine caused all sorts of inconvenience. If not for Miss Smythe, I should have collapsed onto my trunk on the side of the road and sobbed into my kerchief.”
She said this with the emphatic feeling of a woman who had been so recently in that helpless situation, and yet…she didn’t seem like a watering pot who would sit on the side of the road and cry prettily. Neither woman did. He’d bet a penny they’d sooner unharness their horses and ride to the next town than be overcome by something as tragic as a carriage accident.
He was quickly deciding that he knew their kind of female.
Mrs. Inglewood continued, “My servants will be here tomorrow, and we will be better situated then. But perhaps you will send someone over to open the cottage for us tonight?”
He could almost hear her eyelashes flutter at him. The flirtatious quality of her tone made him certain he was being had.
“It’s far too late to risk a trip across the moors today, Mrs. Inglewood. My steward will be over to assess the situation tomorrow. In the meantime, you will both stay at Worston. I insist.”
Not because he delighted at the thought of bringing them under his roof. Indeed, he could think of little less he wanted to do than introduce them to his sisters. Nevertheless, he couldn’t leave Mrs. Inglewood and her companion unattended two miles from town and on the outskirts of the moor. He imagined Mrs. Inglewood would be much more comfortable in a real bed, and there was no denying the existence of a vicious draft.
He wouldn’t stand before the captain and let it be known he’d left the man’s wife in a freezing, darkened cottage that seemed to be infested with…birds?
Yes, birds. Their tweeting filled the rafters, now that he’d noticed it. He’d better have a look tomorrow. Things were not adding up.
In the meantime, they must accompany him to Worston; there was no getting around it. It was hardly Mrs. Inglewood’s fault that he was shamefully aware of her voluptuous companion, or that he’d been deceived so frequently by his sisters that he’d come to suspect the whole of their sex. He couldn’t allow his unproven misgivings to affect his better judgment.
Miss Smythe’s languorous voice recalled him to present company. “You’re more than generous, my lord, but that won’t be necessary. We’ll stay in Brixcombe. We passed the Hound and Hen as we drove through the village. It’s perfectly adequate for our needs.”
“But Cele—” the other woman started.
Miss Smythe shushed her.
Ash looked from one woman to the other, his wariness returned in full force. The dutiful companion silencing her employer? He thought not. Things were definitely not adding up.
“Miss Smythe,” he started, but she interrupted him.
“My lord, since you are here, we might as well inquire about the crack in the north wall.” She said this matter of factly, without any of the silky invitation that had enraptured him but a moment ago. “I’m sure it’s the tree outside that’s causing it.”
His eyebrow lifted at her sudden change of tone. Not because she had the effrontery to suggest he’d hawked a less-than-quality property to her, but because if Mrs. Inglewood was the mistress in this relationship, he’d eat his stocking. Miss Smythe obviously commanded the show.
“My lord?” she prompted him.
“Pardon my ignorance,” he replied, aware he was nettled by his certainty she was lying to him, “but I have never noticed a tree encroaching on the house.”
Her velvety laugh rubbed him the wrong way. “Anyone would see it, my lord, if they but looked the place over. It’s visible from the drive.”
What the devil was she talking about? He’d never seen a crack in a wall. If one existed, he certainly hadn’t meant to sneak it past a prospective buyer. The late vicar had been his tutor when he was a boy, and he’d spent many happy hours here before Mr. Amherst had gone onto his reward. When he’d listed the property for sale, he’d imagined the house as he’d seen it last: filled with love and laughter.
“The sweet chestnut, the pollard oak, or the sycamore?” Ash asked, because he truly couldn’t place it, and he did not like feeling disordered.
It was her turn to pause. “The…tree?”
He began to wish he’d fetched his steward before embarking on this spontaneous welcome mission. “There are many trees. Surely you don’t expect recourse if you can’t identify the precise tree that is causing your distress.”
“I’d be more than happy to show it to you,” she replied sweetly.
He had a feeling what she wanted to show him were her knuckles. She wasn’t well-bred enough to disguise her low opinion of him.
Mentally, he struck another mark against her—not that he was keeping a tally of her points and faults. He was simply too aware of her not to make a concerted effort to remember why he must remain suspicious of her.
“By all means, Miss Smythe,” he said, “lead the way.”
“Miss Smythe,” Mrs. Inglewood cut in with an edge, “I’m sure it would be just as well if we went to Worston and allowed Lord Trestin to look it over with his steward on the morrow…”
Her voice trailed as it became obvious there was no stopping her “companion.” Before Ash could offer his assistance, Miss Smythe stepped off the table. With more grace than Ash had in his entire body, she dropped to the floor and swayed past him.
Truly, he’d never met a woman like her in all his life.
He turned and followed her into the hallway. She must have come down from the city. She positively reeked of excitement. High spirits. Yes, sin. He steeled himself, focusing his eyes on the back of her poke bonnet instead of the seductive sashay of her hips.
Women like her meant one thing: trouble. But what had he done to deserve it?COLLAPSE
Delilah Marvelle, USA Today Bestselling Author wrote:
"...A fun, heated, romantic story about hope, family and love and...a wonderful set up to what looks to be a very promising series."
on The Historical Romance Critic:
"Romantic, witty and delicious."
on Love Saves the World:
"Well written book, with an intelligently humorous edge to the narration" and "emotional undercurrents...that make The Trouble with Being Wicked truly exceptional."
"Reading [Locke's] debut novel was a revelation: a fresh voice, a daring perspective and the brassiest, sassiest heroines I've ever had the pleasure of reading. Add to that well-written and very thoughtful storylines, and what you get is insta-love."
The Trouble with Being Wicked is the first novel in my Scandalous Spinsters series, featuring Celeste Gray and Ashlin Lancester, Lord Trestin. When these two opposites fall in love, it's anything but uncomplicated.
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