The Defiant Lady Pencavel
In 1796, Lady Melwyn Pencavel has been betrothed to Griffin Lambrick since she was a child—and she hasn’t seen him since. Now almost one and twenty, she defies being forced into an arranged marriage. She aspires to be an archeologist and travel to Italy during the upheaval of the Napoleonic Wars. Griffin Lambrick, Viscount of Merther, resents these forced nuptials as well, as he desires no simpering bride and wants no one in his business. For the thrill of it, he smuggles artifacts from Italy at his Cornish estate. Two reckless and stubborn people will meet—with chaos and humor—in this romantic satire, and face their fears.
The coach lurched to a stop on the circular drive, before the impressive Palladian mansion with its strong vertical lines, classical style and large central portico. Lady Melwyn Pencavel released the wrist strap and stared across at her abigail. “Well, here we are, home, to emptiness and routine—and my excruciating death, I daresay. I hope dear Papa won’t scold me too severely.”
“He most often scolds, m’lady, don’t he?” Clowenna gave her the usual smirk born from her years of suffering as Melwyn’s partner in misdeed. “Truth be told, ’ee does tend to misbehave, an’ on purpose if I do say so.”
“What else is there left for a woman to do in this repressive society? You won’t ever be forced into an unwanted marriage. I’m nearly one and twenty, and my betrothed is almost forty. He’ll be in his dotage soon.” Melwyn opened the door, almost hitting the waiting footman in the face. He let down the step. She alighted and breathed in the brisk air, the welcome scents of boxwood and lavender. The March spring blooms were starting, peeling off the grayness of winter. She loved her home, yet more often of late it seemed a prison.
“’Ee hasn’t seen the gentleman in question since merely a child in leadin’ strings. He may pass muster now.” Clowenna climbed down after her, adjusting her shawl and the straw hat over her round face.
“I can only hope he’ll die early, and leave me a rich widow—if I consent to this misalliance, of which I will do my best not to.” Melwyn rearranged the muslin skirt of her pink, flowing, risen-waisted gown. The low neckline would scandalize her father, but it was the fashion. She ascended the marble steps and entered Langoron House.
She removed her cloak and pressed her gloves into the hands of their old retainer, Bastian.
“Welcome home, m’lady. I trust your, ah, impromptu journey to Plymouth was…uneventful.” He bowed the craggy, solemn face—a requirement for butlers she’d always surmised—that stayed somber. He looked as dried up as a stack of old apples, even as his gaze was as warm as plum pudding.
“Dear Bastian, Plymouth is quite lively when the fleet is in.” She gave him a mysterious smile and headed for the stairs. “I danced a jig or two.”
“I pray not. However, your honorable father wishes to speak to you, m’lady.” Bastian twitched his astute stare toward the library. Did she detect a mischievous glint? “The moment you arrive, he said.”
“Very well. I must face the consequences, and listen to never-ending lamentations on my hoydenish ways.” She took a deep breath and strode into the library. Why did she have to feel like a naughty little girl called before her governess?
Her father sat behind his wide walnut desk, his melancholy grey eyes roving over her as if searching for splashes of mud or far worse. “So, you’ve graced us with your presence at last.” He steepled his fingers and stared at her over his half-spectacles. “I suppose you did your best to ruin your reputation while gamboling about the coast. I ask myself over and over, where did I go wrong?”
“Never fear, dear Papa. I gamboled in disguise. No one would know I was an earl’s daughter.” She tried her sweetest smile on him, to no avail. “And I’m still pure and untouched, so you need have no worries there either.” She should have slept with a few sailors, or the odd stevedore, before consigning herself like a serving of meat to the boring Lord Lambrick.
Her father sighed, tilting his triangular face topped with the grey hair she was certain she had caused. “If only your mother were alive, you would be a more dutiful child.” He tapped the leather blotter on his desk. “Fortunately, you are no longer a child, and it is time for you to marry, while the estimable viscount will still have you.”
“Perhaps he won’t; or he may decide he’s too ancient to marry.” She twirled about to soften her frustration, and caught her reflection in the window: slender figure with full bosom, honey-blonde hair framing an oval face with pretty, pouty lips that fooled men into thinking her complacent. Any man would be privileged to have her. Yet she didn’t wish to give up her freedom. She twisted at the silver cord with two large tassels that was tied around her waist. “Why must I marry at all?”
“My dear, every proper young woman marries. The ton notices any dereliction of behavior. Do you wish to be a disgraced spinster, taking care of her father in his declining years? I would be honored with your company, but you are a young lady of restless nature, and need far more guidance than I’ve managed to supply.”
He stood, his mouth in a grimace. His short stature and frail frame were dwarfed by the desk.
She knew she’d inherited her tall, graceful form from her mother—but prayed that was all. A comely visage could attract too much debauchery. Melwyn shivered before collecting herself once more.
“You know I’m devoted to you, Papa…to a point.” She sighed; he was correct about her restless nature. “Nevertheless, why should I care what a herd of stale biddies thinks of me just because I won’t conform to the dictates of society?” She flipped an errant ringlet from her cheek. “I imagine they are all bored to the teeth themselves, but too stuck in their customs and ruts to crawl out and enjoy life.”
“Be that as it may, I’ve written to his lordship, and he should be here in a few days. Let us opine that he won’t find you wanting.” He waved a weary hand in dismissal. “Go to your room and scrub Plymouth from your skin. I expect you to pretend to be the perfect lady when Lord Lambrick arrives.”
“Oh, fie. If I must. I will only meet with him to please you, Papa.” She almost stomped her foot, then thought against it. If she wanted to be taken seriously, she must stop acting the spoiled moppet even when such actions hid her anxieties. Flouncing toward the door, she said, “But I cannot change who I am, a woman of independent spirit.” Her heart hammered at the idea she was soon to meet her betrothed—for the first time as a mature young woman.
“Sadly, I blame myself. I’ve allowed you to run loose like an untamed foal since your mother died when you were only twelve. I should have remarried.” Another heavy sigh emanated from him. “And please wear a kerchief with that dress.”
Melwyn rushed up the stairs and entered her bedchamber. “Papa is in high dudgeon, though he usually is, the poor dear. He’s droning on about Mother again,” she said to her abigail.
Clowenna slowly folded Melwyn’s clothes into the clothes press. Her steady, stocky form had been an anchor—sometimes a burr—in her life since Melwyn was ten. “La, I does hope ’ee kept quiet on that subject, m’lady?”
“Of course. He lives in his fantasy that Mother is dead. But I’ve known the truth from the beginning. Mama ran off with the second under-butler.” Melwyn sat in her favorite wing-backed chair and tried to relax her taught muscles. “I suppose I get my brazen ways from her, but I’ll never forgive her for abandoning me. And why wasn’t the first under-butler good enough?”
Clowenna straightened and smoothed the plain linen open-robe gown she wore. Her pale hair, the color of straw, pulled up in a bun, made her look like a serving of whipt syllabub. “Did ’ee expect your mam an’ her lover to drag a querulous girl about wi’ them? That o’ spoiled their fun, wouldn’t it?”
“You are maddingly correct.” Melwyn flung that thought aside. She untied the pink satin ribbon beneath her chin and removed her Stamp hat covered in rose velvet. The years had softened her ache for a mother in her life. Resentment toward her absent parent had replaced it. Her youth had been filled with nurses and governesses, who usually managed to offer her kind attention if no true affection. “Papa worries I’ll embarrass him. I’m certain by now the holier-than-everyone bon ton has found out about Mother’s escapade.”
“We is far removed from London here in the west country.” Clowenna laid sprigs of lavender in the drawers where she’d placed her lady’s chemises and stays. “Let’s hope no one’s found out there, or they’d cut your father when he went to town.”
“He rarely leaves Cornwall. Poor dear Papa, I shouldn’t plague him so. But now he’s invited my esteemed betrothed here.” Melwyn kicked off her slippers. She rubbed her stocking-clad feet together, her upset prickling along her shoulders. “Perhaps I will disappoint Lord Lambrick, and he’ll want nothing to do with me.”
“I’ve no doubt you’ll encourage his disgust, m’lady.” Clowenna, at six years older, gave her best mother hen look of reprimand. “Yet he may be your last chance for a decent life.”
“Are you so certain I want a decent, and ultimately dreary, life?” Melwyn unpinned her hair and dragged her fingers through the strands. “Why aren’t my desires important?”
“Will ’ee ever tell the master your real reason for goin’ to Plymouth?”
“To view that rare Greek vase the sea captain brought back?” Melwyn rubbed her fingertips along her scalp. “Papa would never understand my fascination for a red and black painted vessel used for libations from the fifth century B.C.”
“Plain creamware crockery works just as well, don’t it?” Clowenna picked up a pitcher and poured water into the ewer.
“I’d much rather be of rare Athenian amphora than simple Bodmin pottery.” Melwyn unlaced her bodice. “Ultimately, I’m only worthy as a girl of clean virtue to marry off.”
Melwyn sighed. Her memories of Lord Lambrick were hazy. A tall, lean man with striking dark eyes; eyes full of mischief and something a little menacing that might intrigue her, if he hadn’t evolved into the tiresome dullard of most of his ilk—and strangled her future in his dubious hands.
Griffin Lambrick, the Viscount of Merther, strolled past the kitchen garden where spicy smells reminded him of when he’d romped here as a boy, pulling out plants to irritate cook. The air near the sea remained damp and he prayed for no storms to ruin his plans—though his plans were weeks from now and turbulent flaws could rise at any time.
He’d just left his tenants in the village he provided, giving them extra food from his gardens. When you took good care of your people, they remained loyal and worked hard for you—and aided and abetted when needed.
He entered his two-hundred-year-old Elizabethan manor, passed through the scullery, kitchens, the green baize door, out of the scent of food, and into the “genteel” portion of the house. His late mother would never have even considered setting one dainty toe in the kitchens. Griffin was certain his father would have been scandalized at the very idea. How utterly traditional and unimaginative his parents had been.
Griffin smiled in reminiscence with a dip of sadness—he did miss them and their often distracted, yet benign attention, as a dutiful son should—and entered his library. This room’s rich leather smell soothed his restless mind—for a time.
“I was just about to come find ’ee, sir.” Jacca, his bailiff, turned from a corner desk.
The Neoclassical piece by Maggiolini had been brought back from Italy by Griffin on his grand tour of the continent. The extensive inlay and marquetry of multiple rare woods over a walnut sub-structure had drawn him, as had a certain Italian beauty.
“What requires my immediate attention?” Griffin paced about the chamber where he’d spent untold hours reading the classics, when he wasn’t galloping on his favorite steed over his extensive acres. Or performing the hazardous undertakings that kept his ardor alive.
His chest heated—albeit briefly—at the uncomfortable fact that his parents would have been disappointed in him.
“Sir?” Jacca—with his long, glum face lined by well over forty years—had led Merther Manor since Griffin was a lad. The bailiff stepped fully into the light from a window, and continued, “A letter has—”
“Where did you get that bruised eye?” Griffin asked, taken aback by the purple discoloring around his bailiff’s right eye. “Bear baiting again? Betting at cock fights? Falling down drunk at the local kiddley?”
“’Tis nothing, sir.” Jacca shrugged and lowered his head. “Me missus planted me a facer for bein’ late for supper. An’ I was only five minutes tardy. But nothin’ pleases her no more.”
“You should really do something about that woman. The laws say you can correct your wife, but nothing about her correcting you,” Griffin admonished. Females should be kept firmly in their place or they tended to spiral out of control—though meek girls bored him, he must admit. That temperamental Italian mistress had kept his interests for nearly two years, then she’d demanded marriage. Aware he couldn’t wed such a lower-class woman, they’d parted amicably enough after monetary compensation. He’d never loved her. He doubted he was capable of such an emotion, except when it came to his family.
“What I was about to say is, a missive arrived for ’ee.” Jacca held out a sealed letter. “Looks important, it does.”
“How are my affairs? Soon I’ll be off to London to consult with my man of business and I want to be aware of any details I should be apprised of. Have the deplorable estate taxes risen again?” Griffin took the letter without glancing at it.
“Naw, sir.” His bailiff flipped open an account book. “An’ everythin’ runs smoothly at your properties, as always. The sheep produce well, the wool good an’ selling in West Riding at them new manufactories.”
“Ah, the manufactories. They’re putting the cottage industries out of business, people out of work and on parish relief.” Griffin leaned against his large desk, unbuttoned his frock coat, and slapped the ignored letter across his knee. “And the aristocracy, such as I, fund the parish relief, which is the least we can do.” He tapped the letter, still not looking at it. “I encourage progress, but it hurts the common people.”
“Ess, it does. As far as smooth running of affairs, our nocturnal dealin’s be an entire different matter.” Jacca winked his un-bruised eye, but it barely stirred his craggy features.
“My man of business is well-acquainted with our secret transactions, as you well know.” Griffin warmed at the idea of the risks he took. Danger kept life exhilarating. A reason to rise from bed each morning, especially now that the house was lonelier after his mother and father’s unfortunate accident at the manor chapel when an embossed ceiling beam had fallen on them during prayer three years past—and his younger brother’s death in the Austrian Netherlands the year before that. Griffin stiffened against the carved edge of the desk. He hated to dwell on such losses.
He sighed and glanced at the letter’s seal. A fancifully executed P was pressed into the red wax. He fought down a grimace.
Jacca watched him carefully. “You look a bit pale, if I may be so bold. Bad news?”
“I’m anticipating unwelcome, or if I could be hopeful, a refusal from this party on something agreed to many years ago.” Griffin broke the seal and read. His stomach sank as if he’d swallowed a lead ball. He’d put this arrangement into the recesses of his memory, and now it stared him in the face like a pregnant tavern wench accusing him of paternity. “Deuce it all. The Earl Pencavel is forcing my hand.”