Read A Lady's Guide to Ruin Online

Authors: Kathleen Kimmel

A Lady's Guide to Ruin

The Imposter

“You startled me,” Joan said. Her fear vanished into a sharp excitement, leaving her feeling raw and light-headed. “I'm sorry. I couldn't sleep.”

“It is a family affliction,” Lord Fenbrook said. At her confused silence, he waved a hand. “Insomnia. Elinor says I should find myself a drafty castle, so I might become a tragic hero in some gothic story.”

“That wouldn't work,” Joan said, before she could think better of it.

“And why not? I can brood as well as the next man, I'll have you know.”

“You aren't dangerous enough,” Joan said, and bit her lip. A brush with danger always did make her too bold. Something about him did, as well.

His laugh seemed to twine around her. She curled her toes into the carpet to keep from stepping toward him. “Some men would take that as an insult. But I find I cannot be insulted by the notion. Although all men are dangerous to young women, Miss Hargrove, by the fact of their mere existence. We should not be here, alone in the dark.”

“We should not be
seen
alone in the dark,” Joan corrected him.

“I suppose that depends on what we are trying to avoid,” he said. “You should be careful.”

“Careful of what?” she asked, wanting him to spell out with those lips and that tongue exactly what it was they weren't supposed to be doing.

An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC

375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014

A LADY'S GUIDE TO RUIN

A Berkley Sensation Book / published by arrangement with the author

Copyright © 2015 by Kathleen Marshall.

Excerpt from
A Gentleman's Guide to Scandal
by Kathleen Kimmel copyright © 2016 by Kathleen Marshall.

Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.

BERKLEY SENSATION® and the “B” design are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.

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penguin.com
.

eBook ISBN: 978-1-101-98680-6

PUBLISHING HISTORY

Berkley Sensation mass-market edition / December 2015

Cover illustration by Aleta Rafton.

Cover design by George Long.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Version_1

Dedication

For Mouse, always.

Acknowledgments

I owe a huge debt to everyone who helped shepherd this book from the germ of an idea to its final form:

To my family, for their unflagging support—especially my parents, who were the first to say that I would get here someday, and my husband, who supported my writing long before I ever worked up the good sense to date him. To Rhiannon Held, for being
A Lady's Guide to Ruin'
s first and most persistent cheerleader. To my agent, Lisa Rodgers, for all her hard work from the first draft to the finish line. And to my editor, Julie Mianecki, and the rest of the team at Berkley, for all their work in creating a fabulous finished product and sending it out into the world at last.

And thank you to all those I haven't mentioned by name, be they friends, colleagues, or baristas. I couldn't have done it without you.

Chapter 1

LONDON, 1815

Joan Price, lately of Bedlam, was an excellent thief. In the last twenty-four hours she had stolen not only herself (over the wall of Bedlam itself, leaving the mad and the mad doctors alike none the wiser) but a thoroughly fashionable bonnet, a dress the color of day-old porridge, and a trio of diamonds as thick as her thumb.

Oddly, it was the last that had proved the easiest. She had found them in a satin bag left carelessly on a table some three paces from where her brother lay dead asleep, his arms wrapped around the doxy whose dress she now wore. Judging by the volume of his snoring and the scent of cheap whiskey on his breath, he'd been celebrating his good fortune. Dear Moses never could hold his drink. Since it was thanks to dear Moses that she had become intimately acquainted with the shortcomings of London's most infamous asylum, she had gladly liberated the gems
from his custody. She was, perhaps, the richest Bedlamite in recent memory.

Not that it did her much good. She suspected she would have some difficulty purchasing passage out of London with a diamond the size of a quail's egg, and the other two weren't much smaller. She was rich, yes, but without a single penny to rub for good luck.

And she had to keep moving. Moses would stir soon enough, or their weasel of a partner, Hugh, would check on him and find the diamonds gone. Her only advantage was that they would think she was still in Bedlam—but that wouldn't last long. She'd seen more than one familiar face already. Some might keep silent, but Hugh had money and Moses had his fists. Between the two of them, they would find someone to give her up. So she walked west, not certain where she meant to end up. Only west and further west, away from Hugh and Moses and her old life.

Somehow, Joan had wandered onto a street of fine town houses. She assuredly did not belong, but an air of joyous frivolity had infected the city since Napoleon's defeat earlier that summer, and for once no one seemed to mind that she had fetched up on richer shores than she deserved. The street was empty now, quiet, and in the moment of stillness she drew up short, pausing to catch her breath.

She could not linger here. She could not have been more out of place, and however carefree the mood, she would not go unnoticed for long. After months of imprisonment, she was a gaunt creature, her eyes encircled with dark blotches and impossibly large in her starved face. Her brother's doxy had a larger frame than she—not surprising, as there was not an ounce of spare flesh to soften the harsh declarations of Joan's skeleton—and the drab frock hung
loose. At least her shorn hair was hidden beneath the fetching bonnet, leaving only a few stray curls exposed.

She looked like she truly belonged in a hospital for the mad. And perhaps she did belong there. Even now, the sky was painful to look at, and the murmur of voices—happy voices, voices untainted by torments of mind and body—brought a lump to her throat. She was
out
. She was
free
, and if she wished to stay that way, she had to keep moving.

Yet she had nowhere to go. No way to fence the gems in her purse. No one would take her in, not with Hugh and Moses looking for her. And they would look for her, as soon as they heard she was out. She would be sent back to Bedlam in an instant. Back to the endless, endless noise.

She shut her eyes. No. She would throw herself in the Thames first, and take the diamonds with her. Let some mudlark churn them up; let them be forgotten. Hugh and Moses wouldn't have them.

The clatter of hooves and scrape of wheels behind her brought Joan around in a sudden whirl, clutching at her bag. A carriage pulled to a stop before her, and the driver cast her a startled look. She must look ready to leap on the horses and chew at their flanks. But the door flew open before the driver could do anything but gawk, and a blur of lavender skirts hurtled at her.

Joan had drawn up against the wall behind her before the blur resolved into a dark-haired girl, her curls askew and her eyes bright and wide. “Oh! I simply can't!” she declared, a scant foot from Joan's trembling form. Joan forced herself to remain still, clasping the handle of her bag tightly to hide the shaking of her hands. Her heart felt as if it were beating against the back of her teeth.

“Miss?” she managed. It came out as a croak.

“I simply can't face them. Here, you must give this to them. Martin and Elinor. Hargrove, I mean. Lord Fenbrook, that is. From Daphne. You must.” The girl had something in her hands and was trying gamely to force it into Joan's. Two letters, folded into quarters and bound with a ribbon—also lavender. The girl smelled of it, too. A clean, calm scent that did not suit the manic sprite at all. Joan pried her fingers free of the bag handle long enough to accept the folded missives, and the coin pressed into her palm. The girl clasped Joan's hands. Her eyes brimmed bright with tears. “Tell them I am happy. Tell them I cannot come, but I am happy, and they should not follow me. Oh!”

And then she was flitting away again, a storm of pale purple, leaving her scent wafting behind. Joan caught a glimpse of a masculine hand helping her back into the carriage, and then the door shut, the curtain fell, and a loud rap signaled the driver to urge the horses onward. Joan stared as the carriage trundled away.

She was not entirely certain what had just happened. She'd seen back-alley robberies conducted with more consideration.
Who was that girl?
And more to the point, who was it that Joan was meant to deliver these letters to? A fortunate pair, if they were to be spared the company of the purple blur. It did not seem conscionable that Joan should be declared mad for her poor choice in business partners while
that
flounced away in comfort.

Still, she had—she looked down at her hand—a shilling. As the day's events went, this might be the strangest, but at least it paid.

She sighed, tucked the shilling and the letters into her bag, and straightened her shoulders. It was something. Sign
enough that she shouldn't sink her bones down into the mud beneath a bridge just yet. She decided she would get something to eat—her stomach growled in agreement—and set out on foot. With any luck, she'd stay ahead of her former partners.

She had just smoothed out her skirts—and gotten her heartbeat back to something resembling its normal rhythm—when a very determined man strode around the corner, brow furrowed. She shrank back to allow him passage, but he fixed his eyes on her, frown deepening. He was a tall man, but held himself tensed in a way that made him seem smaller. Whatever care he might have given to his brown curls had been undone by the wind and his rather alarming gait, resulting in a rather harried look echoed in the slightly-askew angle of his jacket.

His gaze met hers with an intensity that stopped her where she stood, and something gave a twist in the vicinity of her stomach. Her lips parted, a feeling like the first blush of swigged gin stealing over her skin.

“Daphne? Dear lord,” he said, and the feeling lurched into confusion.
Daphne?
“I meant to be here sooner. What are you . . . ?” He took in her clothes, seemed to think better of his question, and cleared his throat. “Where are your bags? Has something happened?”

Joan stared at him for the space of one quick heartbeat, and then did the only sensible thing she could think of.

She burst into tears.

It had the expected effect. He froze in place, a look that bordered on panic spreading over his features. She threw herself forward with an inward sigh and buried her face against his chest, making sure that her shoulders quaked with just the right frequency and inserting a small hiccup
in the middle of every third breath.
It was
, she reflected,
not the most dignified means of distraction, but it had not yet failed her.

Sure enough, his hand shortly found her back, and patted it twice, stiffly. “Daphne. Cousin, calm yourself,” he managed. He drew back a moment and held her at arm's length, peering into her face. She let her hands drop, keeping her eyes wide so the tears would flow freely down her cheeks. His lips pursed slightly. He had a wide, expressive mouth and a long nose that gave his face a solemn look.
A kind man,
she thought,
the sort of man who would not question a tearful tale.
If only she could think of one.

“Come inside,” he said at last. “We'll get you some tea.”

She blinked at him. She had expected the tears merely to give her time to spin a story that might earn her a little sympathy, and perhaps a coin to send her on her way. But this man—who, she realized, must be Martin Hargrove—apparently did not know his cousin by sight.

Now he was drawing her toward the house. She swallowed. She'd hesitated too long to protest. There was nothing for it now but to play the role until she got the opportunity to run.

An opportunity which she rather hoped did not present itself until after supper.

*   *   *

Martin Hargrove valued punctuality in the way that a pauper valued money. He had never possessed it—was forever arriving too late by moments or by hours. He had
meant
to be waiting at home with his sister and her doddering chaperone for company when his cousin arrived. He had
meant
to arrive in a coach, not on foot with his jacket
rumpled and his boots speckled with what he hoped was mud. On top of that, his sister was detained at some incomprehensibly important appointment that likely involved silk stockings and most definitely involved his money.

All thoughts of his own misfortune had fled, though, the moment he rounded the corner. There stood Daphne Hargrove, the distant cousin of meager means whom he had agreed to welcome into his household—whose well-being he had taken responsibility for—in a corpse-colored monstrosity of a dress, with nothing but a lumpy handbag and a lost look for baggage.

When she looked up, for a moment he had thought he was mistaken in her identity—he had not seen the girl since she was knee-high—but her hair was suitably brown where it showed at the edge of her bonnet, and her eyes were large and dark. They fixed on him, and for a moment he lost track of his tongue. She had eyes like a doe, and the same tense, delicate energy in her limbs. He'd barely managed to put the English language in order long enough to ask her what had happened, and then she'd burst into tears.

His confusion melted into distress as the small woman buried her face against his lapels. He'd wanted at once to sweep her into his arms and to strike out at whoever had left the girl in such a state. The street was empty, but who knew what eyes peered from other windows. He'd slipped his arm lower and angled her toward the house.

Inside, her sobs subsided into a series of snuffles and gasps. He chanced a glance down at her. Tears tracked down her cheeks. She looked as if she had been starved, drenched, and dried out poorly. Her father had said she was
scattered,
but Martin had not imagined anything quite so dire.
And
where was Mrs. Fowler, the woman who was meant to deliver her to his care?

He guided Daphne into the library and levered her down onto a deep armchair. Once he had extricated himself from her surprisingly tenacious grasp, he went to the door. Garland, the butler, met him there, looking pained that he had failed to materialize the moment Martin stepped over the threshold. The inconsistency of Martin's timing was a perpetual strain on the man.

“Tea,” Martin said. “Miss Hargrove requires tea. And a great deal of food.”

“At once, sir,” Garland said. “Is there anything else?”

“Alert me when my sister returns,” Martin said, and then Garland was gliding away. Martin turned back to his cousin carefully, and moved to the seat across from her. He had little experience with distressed women—Elinor, as a rule, did not stoop to distress—and he could only assume that they must be treated like edgy animals.

Daphne seemed somewhat more composed; the tears had slowed to a trickle, at least. As he settled into his seat, she tucked a folded page into her bag and offered a wan smile.

“I'm terribly sorry,” she said. “It's been a very difficult day.” She looked up at him from beneath thick lashes, and for a moment her face was perfectly still and calm. And in stillness, it was beautiful. He let out a startled breath. The last time he'd seen her, she had been of an age when children largely concerned themselves with drooling and stumbling, with only a few insistent phrases in her vocabulary, whilst he had only the vaguest notion that women might hold some interest as a species. He had never stopped
thinking of her as a child, when he had bothered to think of her at all. Yet looking on her now, tears gone and cheeks blushing a fetching shade of soft pink, warmth bloomed in his chest.

Warmth bloomed in another place, too, though thankfully the distraction was quenched again with the onset of a new spate of tears. She was thin as a rail, and half-dead besides. What she needed right now was a great deal of food, and several nights' rest, not his ungentlemanly thoughts.

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