It was a most outrageous scheme--but necessary if Olivia Fenshawe was to save her brother's reputation.
Cutting her hair and donning his clothes, she daringly assumed his post as secretary to the dashing Earl of Worth--but, of course, it could not last.
Unmasked, and with her brother still missing, Olivia is compelled to give in to the infuriating Earl's demand that she exchange one masquerade for another: that of his betrothed.
Truly, a situation that could only be described as a madcap scheme.
A Hard Shell Word Factory Release
Karla Hocker, a native of Germany, is the author of fourteen Regency novels and various novellas. She attributes her love of the English language and her fascination with the Regency period to a three-year stay in England. Karla now lives with her family--and far too many cats--in San Antonio, Texas.
"My dearest, sweetest Merrie! Say you will help me."
Olivia Fenshawe looked imploringly at her old governess. It was not absolutely essential to have Miss Merriweather's assistance in this daring plot, but it would make her feel less guilty, less scandalous, were Merrie to approve of the scheme, at least in deed if not in spirit.
"It's outrageous and foolish beyond belief, Olivia! How can you even think of it? I'll not help you to certain ruin, child!"
"You may believe me foolhardy, but admit, Merrie, it's the only way to safeguard the position for Tony!"
Olivia tugged a length of starched muslin from the depth of her cloak bag and shook it with a flourish under Merrie's bespectacled nose.
A pained expression crossed Miss Merriweather's disciplined countenance as she regarded the tall young lady towering above her with arms akimbo in a challenging stance. Olivia was clad only in skintight hose of ecru knit and a man's shirt of snowy lawn with frills of lace down the front and around the wrists and collar. Long, disheveled locks of a very dark nut brown with reddish highlights framed her face, softening the lines of her stubborn chin and high cheekbones.
"Olivia, you'll be disgraced if you're found out! I cannot permit you to do it!"
Olivia's hazel eyes twinkled with golden specks of mischief. "You forget, dearest, that I'm in your charge no longer. I've passed my twenty-second birthday; I'm my own mistress and need ask permission of no one -- and I shan't be coaxed out of this either!"
Miss Merriweather drew herself up and sat ramrod straight in her chair, the only chair for that matter in the minuscule second bedroom of her Hans Town flat. "I have never during my forty years of teaching and governessing resorted to coaxing!"
"Except when you were dealing with Tony." With loving tenderness, Olivia placed her hand against the old lady's still smooth and rosy cheek. She smiled. "You coaxed him out of his dark moods, and you even cajoled my stubborn little brother into attending his books."
"And see where it got us! Anthony should have learned by now that he cannot run away from his responsibilities. I should have punished him with bread and water in his room instead of sweet-talking him out of the old barn whenever he hid there in a fit of the sullens. I spoilt him!"
"It wasn't your fault alone," Olivia said consolingly as she draped the muslin cravat around her slender neck. With her chin pushed toward the ceiling and inexperienced fingers laboring at her throat in an effort to tie some kind of acceptable knot, her voice sounded strained and weak. "I have my share of blame to carry, and so does everyone at Fenshawe Court, from the butler to the boot boy -- except for dear brother Richard and his wife."
When the feat of tying the cravat was finally accomplished, Olivia pressed her chin down against the painstakingly arranged folds and added more forcefully, "And if Richard and Harriet had waited to let me speak to Tony instead of browbeating him, he would not have felt so insulted; he would be installed tomorrow in the very lucrative post as secretary to the Earl of Worth!"
"That looks more like a Belcher kerchief than a cravat," muttered Miss Merriweather with a judicious glance at Olivia's handiwork.
"You do it, Merrie dearest," said Olivia in a coaxing voice.
"I'll have no hand in this, young lady! Do not waste your wiles on me."
For a few moments quiet reigned in the small chamber while Olivia removed the offending article and tossed it onto the narrow bed under the window. She rummaged in her cloak bag again and removed a pair of well-worn tan corduroy breeches. With a shudder Miss Merriweather closed her eyes when Olivia donned the male garment and did not open them until a very unladylike exclamation from her young guest's lips compelled her to take notice.
"Thunder and turf!" muttered Olivia, again busily at work with the cravat. "It's like trying to tie a knot in a slithering snake."
"Not that way, child! And pray don't swear! It's not befitting a lady of quality." Miss Merriweather came to her feet and, with few economical movements, tied a fair imitation of the Waterfall.
"Thank you, Merrie." A dimple peeped beside an infinitesimal, heart-shaped mole at the left corner of Olivia's mouth.
"Humph! And why, pray tell, did Tony not jump at the opportunity to work for Lord Worth? He's been champing at the bit ever since Sir Richard called him down from Cambridge, and now he's botched the perfect opportunity to get away from Fenshawe Court and stand on his own two feet. Let him face the consequences and confront Lord Worth with his excuses for showing up late for the post. Let him grow up and be a man!"
"Merrie! I can't believe you are speaking so harshly of Tony. He's young yet and will learn, but what would he do if Lord Worth employed some other young man in the meantime? Tony has no other prospects and he may never receive an offer like this one again -- he needs this position!"
"He could have had other offers of employment," countered Miss Merriweather fiercely, "had not Sir Richard deprived him of a valuable education!"
"But Richard did, and that's why I must help Tony now. He'll come around, you'll see. He's miffed now because he learned that Richard had gambled away Fenshawe Court after Mama and Papa's carriage accident."
Miss Merriweather nodded, causing her steel-rimmed spectacles to bounce to the tip of her slender nose. Impatiently she pushed them back. "Yes, that would throw Tony in a pelter."
"You knew?" Olivia blinked in surprise. "Even to me the information came as a shock."
"Servants will talk, child. Not to you, of course -- you were too young at the time --but they confided in me. After your parents' death, while Sir Richard continued on his jolly way in London, and you were hounded by bill collectors from sunrise till dark, the staff at Fenshawe Court lived in constant fear of being turned off. That coat is too large, dear. You look puny and undernourished with all that material flapping around your shoulders. What we need is a bit of buckram padding. Take it off!"
Olivia perched on the hard bedstead while Miss Merriweather bore off the coat to her sitting room, where she kept a well-stocked sewing basket near her favorite wing-backed chair. An impish smile flitted briefly across Olivia's face -- Merrie was more than half won over to the scheme, whether she realized it or not.