A Dash of Scandal(3)

Millicent was the only child born to the middle-aged earl of Bellecourte and his young wife, Dorothy. The earl already had a grown son and two married daughters by his deceased wife when he married Dorothy, at the request of Dorothy’s father, his longtime friend. Earl Bellecourte married Dorothy after her reputation had been ruined by a scandal in London.

When Millicent was twelve her father died suddenly, leaving his wife with a jointure more than sufficient to cover her own and her daughter’s needs. Dorothy was an attentive mother and saw to it that Millicent was educated in a manner befitting the daughter of an earl.

She was given everything except a London Season.

Dorothy expected her daughter to marry a local vicar, or some suitable gentleman of means. Much to her mother’s distress, at age twenty, Millicent had already refused three offers of marriage.

Her mother had left London in shame twenty-one years ago vowing never to return. When Beatrice’s frantic plea came, Dorothy was reluctant to let Millicent go up to London, but having always been fond of her deceased husband’s sister, she agreed Millicent would be the perfect companion to Beatrice while she recuperated.

Millicent understood why her mother had never wanted her to go to London, but her mother had no cause to worry. Millicent didn’t plan to fall in love with a scoundrel and ruin her reputation.

Thinking of her mother prompted Millicent to try once more to talk her aunt out of involving her in this scheme. “I don’t see how I can listen to conversations, then come home and write about them.”

“Oh, heaven’s gates, Millicent, don’t be so puritanical. Everyone in the ton loves the gossip columns. They can’t wait for the Society pages to come out each day so they can read what has been said about the parties of the night before and the people who attended.”

Millicent bristled at the inconsiderate attitude of her aunt. “It was that very same kind of gossip that forced my mother from London in shame.”

“Oh fiddle-faddle. That was years ago, and it was the best thing that could have happened to her. The last I heard the man she was caught with in the garden has never married. He wanted a conquest, not a wife, and your mother was foolish enough to believe every lie he told her. But, because of that scandal she married my dear departed brother, and was, by all that I could see, very happy.” Beatrice offered her a slight smile from swollen lips.

Millicent nodded, knowing that her mother and father had been devoted to each other, but her mother had paid a terrible price for the good life she’d had with her husband.

“And best of all, dearie, they had you. My brother often wrote to me what a joy and comfort you were to him.”

“My father was a fine gentleman, but I’m not sure that makes up for the humiliation my mother suffered from Society when she was declared an outcast and shunned.”

“True, my dear.” Beatrice grimaced in pain. “Your mother had a compromising, but, I understand, not a consummated relationship with a gentleman who later refused to marry her. Society is unforgiving of such things. But it was all for the best. I know if your father were alive he’d want you to help me in my hour of need.”

Millicent looked down at the vulnerable lady before her. Aunt Beatrice had finally found Millicent’s soft spot. Millicent had always adored her father. Would she be honoring him by doing what Aunt Beatrice asked? Millicent wasn’t shy or retiring. She knew she would be able to do the work, she just didn’t like the idea of deceiving people.

“Now, before my medication puts me to sleep, let’s go over who you will most likely see and hear about tonight one more time. Start at the beginning.”

Resigned to her fate, Millicent said, “Lord and Lady Heathecoute will be my chaperones and make introductions for me. I am to slowly walk around the room and listen to conversations and make mental notes of all I hear. I will accept if a gentleman asks me for a dance, but I am not to show interest or give encouragement for another dance or an afternoon call.”

“Good. Now, what are the names of the people who are of special interest?”

“The notable young ladies are Miss Bardwell, Miss Donaldson, and Miss Pennington. The widows are Lady Hatfield and Countess Falkland.”

Aunt Beatrice tried to smile again, but her swollen chin and cut lip made it impossible. “Perfect. You are a quick learner. I knew I did the right thing in sending for you. I should have done it two days ago. Now, who are the Terrible Threesome?”

“Chandler Prestwick, the earl of Dunraven; Andrew Terwillger, the earl of Dugdale; and John Wickenham-Thickenham-Fines, the earl of Chatwin. They have been inseparable friends since Oxford.”

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