First Comes Scandal
Book 4 in the Rokesby Series
She was given two choices…
Georgiana Bridgerton isn’t against the idea of marriage. She’d just thought she’d have some say in the matter. But with her reputation hanging by a thread after she’s abducted for her dowry, Georgie is given two options: live out her life as a spinster or marry the rogue who has ruined her life.
Enter Option #3
As the fourth son of an earl, Nicholas Rokesby is prepared to chart his own course. He has a life in Edinburgh, where he’s close to completing his medical studies, and he has no time—or interest—to find a wife. But when he discovers that Georgie Bridgerton—his literal girl-next-door—is facing ruin, he knows what he must do.
A Marriage of Convenience
It might not have been the most romantic of proposals, but Nicholas never thought she’d say no. Georgie doesn’t want to be anyone’s sacrifice, and besides, they could never think of each other as anything more than childhood friends… or could they?
But as they embark upon their unorthodox courtship they discover a new twist to the age-old rhyme. First comes scandal, then comes marriage. But after that comes love…
Enjoy an Excerpt
First Comes Scandal
Kent, England 1791
At least no one had died.
Beyond that, Nicholas Rokesby had not a clue why he’d been summoned home to Kent.
If someone had died, he reasoned, his father would have said as much in the message he’d dispatched to Nicholas in Edinburgh. He’d sent it by swift rider, so it was obviously a matter of some urgency, but if someone had died, surely Lord Manston would have written more than:
Please return to Crake with all possible haste. Your mother and I must speak with you on a matter of some urgency.
My regrets for interrupting your studies.
Your loving father,
Nicholas glanced up at the familiar canopy of trees as he embarked upon the final leg of his journey. He’d already traveled from Edinburgh to London by mail coach, London to Maidstone by stagecoach, and was now completing the last fifteen miles on horseback.
The rain had finally stopped—thank the good lord—but his mount was kicking up a bloody ridiculous amount of mud, and between that and the pollen, Nicholas had a feeling that by the time he made it home to Crake he’d look like he had impetigo.
Crake. Less than a mile to go.
Hot bath, warm meal, and then he’d find out just what had his father in such a lather.
It had better be something serious. Not death, of course, but if he found out that he’d been called across two countries merely because one of his brothers was getting an award from the king, he was going to take someone’s bloody arm off.
He knew how to do it, too. All of the medical students were required to observe surgeries when the opportunity arose. It was not Nicholas’s favorite part of the program; he much preferred the more cerebral aspects of medicine—assessing symptoms and solving the ever-changing puzzles that led to a diagnosis. But in this day and age it was important to know how to amputate a limb. It was often the doctor’s only defense against infection. What could not be cured could be stopped in its tracks.
Better to cure, though.
No, better to prevent. Stop problems before they started.
Nicholas gave a mental eye-roll as Crake finally came into view. He had a feeling that whatever problem had brought him down to Kent on this rainy spring day, it was well underway.
Also, his brothers weren’t getting awards from the king. They were stand-up gentlemen, all three of them, but really.
He slowed his horse to a trot as they rounded the final corner of the drive. The trees slipped from his peripheral vision and suddenly there was his home, stately and solid, all two and a half centuries of it rising from the earth like a limestone goddess. Nicholas had always marveled at how such a large and ornate building could be so well hidden until the final moment of approach. He supposed there was something poetic about it, that he could continually be surprised by something that had always been a part of him.
His mother’s roses were in full bloom, red and pink and riotous, just the way they all liked them, and as Nicholas drew close, he felt their scent in the damp air, drifting lightly over his clothes and under his nose. He’d never been particularly fond of the smell of roses—he preferred his flowers less fussy—but when everything came together in moments like this: the roses and the mist, the damp of the earth…
It was home.
It didn’t seem to matter that he hadn’t meant to be here, at least not for another few weeks. This was home, and he was home, and it set him at peace, even as his brain pricked with unease, wondering what manner of disaster had called him back.
The staff must have been alerted to his impending arrival because a groom was waiting in the drive to see to his mount, and Wheelock had the door open before Nicholas even took the front step.
“Mr. Nicholas,” the butler said. “Your father would like to see you immediately.”
Nicholas motioned to his mud-spattered attire. “Surely he will want me to—”
“He did say immediately, sir.” Wheelock’s chin dipped, almost imperceptibly, just enough to indicate the back of the house. “He is with your mother in the gold-and-green.”
Nicholas felt his brow draw down in confusion. His family was less formal than most, especially when they were here in the country, but a greatcoat streaked with mud was never acceptable attire in his mother’s favorite drawing room.
“I’ll take that,” Wheelock said, reaching for the coat. The man always had been a freakishly good mind-reader.
Nicholas glanced down at his boots.
“I would just go,” Wheelock said.
Good God, maybe someone had died.
“Do you know what this is about?” he asked, turning so that Wheelock could take the coat from his shoulders.
“It is not for me to say.”
Nicholas glanced back over his shoulder. “So you do know.”
“Sir.” Wheelock looked pained.
“I would have been down in less than a month.”
Wheelock avoided Nicholas’s gaze as he made a show of brushing dried bits of mud off the coat. “I believe time is of some essence.”
Nicholas rubbed his eye. Good God, he was tired. “Do you enjoy being cryptic?”
Which was a bald-faced lie. Wheelock loved the special brand of understatement that was available only to butlers who were very secure in their positions. But Nicholas could tell that Wheelock was not finding anything to love in this particular conversation.
“I’m sorry,” Nicholas said. “It is badly done of me to put you in such a position. No need to announce me. I’ll take my muddy boots and find my parents.”
“Gold-and-green,” Wheelock reminded him.
“Of course,” Nicholas murmured. As if he’d forget.
The entrance to the gold and green drawing room was at the end of the hall, and Nicholas had spent enough time making that short journey to know that his parents had to have heard him enter the house. The floors were marble, always polished to perfection. Stockinged feet slid like skates on ice and shoes clicked with enough volume to percuss a small orchestra.
But when he reached the open doorway and peered inside, neither of his parents were so much as glancing in his direction. His father was by the window, staring out over the verdant lawn, and his mother was curled in her favorite spot on the mint green sofa.
She’d always said the left side was more comfortable than the right. All five of her children had tested this hypothesis, scooting from one side to the other, and no one had managed to reach the same conclusion. To be fair, no one had reached any verifiable conclusion. Mary had declared that both sides felt the same, Edward pointed out that the only way to be truly comfortable was to put one’s feet up, which was not generally permitted, and Andrew had hopped back and forth so many times he’d busted the seam on one of the cushions. George had declared the entire exercise ridiculous, but not before making his own perfunctory test, and as for Nicholas…
He had been but five during this family experiment. But he’d sat himself down in every spot before rising back to his feet and declaring, “Well, we can’t prove her wrong.”
That seemed to cover a lot of life, he’d come to realize.
Proving something right wasn’t the same as proving the opposite wrong.
And if the left side of the sofa made his mother happy, who was he to say otherwise?
He hesitated for a moment in the doorway, waiting for one of his parents to notice his presence. They didn’t, so he stepped inside, pausing at the edge the rug. He’d already left a trail of mud in the hall.
He cleared his throat, and finally they both turned.
His mother spoke first. “Nicholas,” she said, stretching her arm in his direction. “Thank God you’re here.”
He looked warily from parent to parent. “Is something wrong?”
It was the stupidest of questions. Of course something was wrong. But no one was wearing black, so…
“Sit down,” his father said, motioning to the sofa.
Nicholas took a seat next to his mother, taking her hand in his. It seemed the right thing to do. But she surprised him by tugging it away and rising to her feet.
“I will leave the two of you to your discussion,” she said. She laid her hand on Nicholas’s shoulder, signaling that he did not need to rise. “It will be easier if I am not here.”
What the devil? There was a problem that needed sorting and his mother was not just not taking charge, she was voluntarily exiting the scene?
This was not normal.
“Thank you for coming down so quickly,” she murmured, bending to kiss him on the cheek. “It comforts me more than I could ever say.” She looked back at her husband. “I will be at my writing desk, should you need me to…”
She seemed not to know what to say. Nicholas had never seen her so uncomposed.
“Should you need me,” she finally finished.
Nicholas watched as his mother departed, silent and likely slackjawed until she shut the door behind her. He turned back to his father. “What is going on?”
His father sighed, and a long, heavy moment passed before he said, “There has been an incident.”
His father always had been a master of polite understatement.
“You should have a drink.”
“Sir.” Nicholas didn’t want a drink. He wanted an explanation. But this was his father, so he took the drink.
“It concerns Georgiana.”
“Bridgerton?” Nicholas asked in disbelief, as if there was another Georgiana to whom his father could possibly be referring.
Lord Manston nodded grimly. “You haven’t heard, then.”
“I’ve been in Edinburgh,” Nicholas reminded him.
His father took a sip of his brandy. A rather larger sip than was normal this early in the morning. Or any time of the day, for that matter. “Well, that’s a relief.”
“Respectfully, sir, I would ask you to be less opaque.”
“There was an incident.”
“Still opaque,” Nicholas muttered.
If his father heard him—and to be honest, Nicholas rather thought he had—he made no reaction. Instead he cleared his throat and said, “She was kidnapped.”
“What?” Nicholas sprang to his feet, his own glass of brandy sliding from his fingers to the priceless carpet below. “You didn’t think to begin the conversation with that? Good God, has anyone—”
“Calm yourself,” his father said sharply. “She has been recovered. She is safe.”
“She was not violated.”
Nicholas felt something unfamiliar slide through his veins. Relief, he supposed, but something else along with it. Something acrid and sour.
He’d met women who’d been forced into sexual congress against their will. It did things to them. To their bodies, which he thought he might understand a little, and then to their souls, which he knew he could not understand at all.
This feeling inside… it was sharper than relief. It had teeth, and it came with a slow thrum of rage.
Georgiana Bridgerton was like a sister to him. No, not quite a sister. Not exactly. But her brother Edmund was like a brother to him, closer than his own, to be honest.
Lord and Lady Manston had thought they were finished having children when Nicholas happened along. He was a full eight years younger than his next closest sibling; by the time he was old enough to do more than toddle about in nappies they were all off at school.
But Edmund Bridgerton had been around, just a few miles away at Aubrey Hall. They were almost precisely the same age, born just two months apart.
They’d been inseparable.
“What happened?” Nicholas asked his father.
“Bloody fortune-hunter went after her,” his father bit off. “Nithercott’s son.”
“Freddie Oakes?” Nicholas said, with no small amount of surprise. They’d gone to school together. For a few years, at least. Freddie hadn’t finished. He was popular, personable, and insanely good at cricket, but it turned out that the only thing worse than failing one’s exams was cheating on them, and he’d been booted from Eton at the age of sixteen.
“That’s right,” Lord Manston murmured. “You know him.”
“Not well. We were never friends.”
“Never not friends,” Nicholas clarified. “Everyone got on with Freddie Oakes.”
Lord Manston gave him a sharp look. “You defend him?”
“No,” Nicholas said quickly, although without any facts, he had no idea what had truly happened. Still, it was difficult to imagine a scenario that involved Georgiana being at fault. “I’m just saying that he was always very popular. He wasn’t mean, but you didn’t really want to cross him.”
“So he was a bully.”
“No.” Nicholas rubbed his eyes. Damn, he was tired. And it was near impossible to explain the intricacies of school social hierarchy to someone who wasn’t there. “Just… I don’t know. As I said, we weren’t really friends. He was… shallow, I suppose.”
His father gave him a curious look.
“Or maybe he wasn’t. I honestly could not say. I never really spoke with him about anything more than what was for breakfast or who was going home for half term.” Nicholas thought for a moment, sifting through his memories of school. “He played a lot of cricket.”
“You played cricket.”
It was a sign of his father’s distress that he did not immediately leap to correct him on this. In the Earl of Manston’s mind, all four of his sons had been made in his image—splendid athletes who dominated the sporting fields of Eton College.
He was only twenty-five percent wrong.
Nicholas was not an incompetent athlete. To the contrary, he was a rather fine fencer, and he could outshoot any of his brothers with either rifle or bow. But put him on a field with a ball (of any sort) and a few other men and he was hopeless. There was a skill to knowing where one was in a crowd. Or maybe it was an instinct. Regardless, he did not have it. Cricket, the Field Game, the Wall Game…
He was terrible at them all. All of his worst memories of school were on the playing fields. That sense of being watched and found wanting… the only thing worse was waiting while teams were chosen. It did not take boys long to figure out who could kick a ball or throw a googly.
And who could not.
He supposed it was the same in academics. He’d only been at Eton a few months before everyone knew he was the one with the perfect marks in the sciences. Even Freddie Oakes had come to him for help from time to time.
Nicholas knelt to finally retrieve the glass tumbler he’d dropped. He regarded it for a moment, trying to decide if the moment required a clear head or a softening around the edges.
Probably something in between.
He looked at his father. “Perhaps you had better tell me what has happened,” he said, crossing the room to refill his glass. He could decide later if he wanted to drink it.
“Very well.” His father set his own glass down with a heavy clunk. “I’m not sure when they met, but Oakes had made his intentions clear. He was courting her. Your mother seemed to think that he was likely to propose.”
Nicholas could not imagine why his mother thought she could read the mind of Freddie Oakes of all people, but this was clearly not the time to point this out.
“I don’t know if Georgiana would have said yes,” Lord Manston continued. “Oakes gambles too much—we all know that—but he’ll eventually have the barony, and Georgie’s not getting any younger.”
At twenty-six, Georgie was precisely one year younger than Nicholas, but he was well aware that women did not age at the same rate as men, at least not as pertained to the customs and mores of English marriage.
“Anyway,” his father continued, “Lady Bridgerton and your mother were up in London—shopping, I suppose; I didn’t ask—and Georgiana went with them.”
“But not for the season,” Nicholas murmured. As far as he knew, Georgie had never had a proper London season. She’d said she hadn’t wanted one. He’d never inquired further. A season in London sounded as appealing to him as having his teeth pulled, so who was he to question her?
“Just a visit,” his father confirmed. “I’m sure they went to some event or another. But nothing official. Season’s almost over, anyway. But Oakes called several times, and he took Georgiana out.”
Nicholas splashed a bit of brandy into his glass and turned back around to face his father. “With Lady Bridgerton’s permission?”
Lord Manston nodded grimly. “It was all as it should be. Her maid accompanied them. They went to a bookstore.”
“That sounds like Georgie.”
His father nodded. “Oakes snatched her on the way out. Or rather, he made off with her. She got into the carriage willingly, because why shouldn’t she?”
“What about the maid?”
“Oakes pushed her to the pavement before she could get into the carriage.”
“My God, is she all right?” If she hit her head, it could be quite serious.
Lord Manston blinked, and it occurred to Nicholas that his father probably hadn’t considered the question of the maid’s health. “She’s probably fine if you haven’t heard anything,” Nicholas said.
His father was silent for a moment, then said, “She is home now.”
His father nodded. “She was in his custody for only a day, but the damage was done.”
“I thought you said she wasn’t—”
His father slammed his glass onto the side table. “She doesn’t have to have been violated for her reputation to be destroyed. Good God, boy, use your head. It doesn’t matter what he did or didn’t do to her. She’s ruined. And everyone knows it.” He looked up at Nicholas with a withering expression. “Except, apparently, you.”
There was an insult there somewhere, but Nicholas decided to let it slide. “I was in Edinburgh, sir,” he said, voice tight. “I did not know that any of this had transpired.”
“I know. I’m sorry. This is very distressing.” Lord Manston raked his hand through his hair. “She is my goddaughter, you know.”
“I swore an oath to protect her. In church.”
As his father wasn’t a particularly religious man, Nicholas wasn’t certain why the location of the vow held such importance, but he nodded all the same. He brought his glass to his lips but did not drink, instead using the tumbler to partially obscure his own expression as he watched his father.
He had never seen him quite like this. He was not sure what to make of it.
“I cannot see her ruined,” his father said firmly. “We cannot see her ruined.”
Nicholas held his breath. Later he realized his lungs knew what his brain did not. His life was about to take a drastic turn.
“There is only one thing to be done,” his father said. “You must marry her.”
Quite a few things looped through Nicholas’s mind upon his father’s announcement.
What did you just say?
Are you mad?
You must be mad.
Yes, I’m sure you’re mad.
Wait, did I hear that correctly?
All culminating in: ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR BLOODY MIND?
What he said, however, was, “I beg your pardon?”
“You must marry her,” his father said again.
Proving that A) Nicholas had not misheard him and B) his father was indeed out of his bloody mind.
Nicholas downed his brandy in one gulp. “I can’t marry Georgiana,” he said.
“Because—Because—” There were so many reasons Nicholas could not possibly coalesce them into a single statement.
His father raised a brow. “Are you married to someone else?”
“Of course not!”
“Have you promised to marry someone else?”
“For the love of God, Father—”
“Then I see no reason you cannot do your duty.”
“It is not my duty!” Nicholas exploded.
His father stared at him, hard, and he felt like a child again, scolded for some minor infraction.
But this was not minor. This was marriage. And while marrying Georgiana Bridgerton might—might—be the right and honorable thing to do, it certainly was not his duty.
“Father,” he tried again, “I am not in a position to marry.”
“Of course you are. You are twenty-seven years old, of sound mind, and in good health.”
“I live in a rented room in Edinburgh. I don’t even have a valet.”
His father waved a hand. “Easily remedied. We can get you a house in the new part of town. Your brother knows several of the architects involved with the planning. It will be an excellent investment.”
For a moment Nicholas could only stare. His father was talking about property investments?
“You may consider it a wedding gift.”
Nicholas brought his hand to his forehead, using his thumb and middle finger to press into his temples. He needed to focus. Think. His father was still talking, going on about integrity and duty and 99-year leases, and Nicholas’s brain hurt.
“Do you have any idea what is involved in the study of medicine?” he asked, his eyes closed behind his hand. “I don’t have time for a wife.”
“She doesn’t need your time. She needs your name.”
Nicholas moved his hand. Looked at his father. “You’re serious.”
His father gave him a look as if to say, Haven’t you been listening?
“I can’t marry someone with the express intention of ignoring her.”
“I hope that does not prove to be the case,” his father responded. “I am merely trying to point out that your cooperation in this matter does not have to adversely impact your life at this crucial juncture.”
“That was an awful lot of words to tell me, in effect, to be a bad husband.”
“No, it was an awful lot of words to tell you, in effect, to be a young woman’s hero.”
Nicholas rolled his eyes. “After which I can go and be a bad husband.”
“If that is your wish,” his father said quietly.
Nicholas wasn’t sure how long he stared at his father in disbelief. It was only when he realized he was slowly shaking his head that he forced himself to turn away. He walked to the window, using it as an excuse to set his attention elsewhere. He did not want to look at his father right now. He didn’t want to think about him, or his mad proposition.
No, it wasn’t a proposition, was it? It was order. His father had not said, “Would you marry Georgiana?”
He’d said, “You must marry her.”
It was not the same.
“You can leave her in Kent,” his father said after whatever he must have deemed an appropriately considerate stretch of silence. “She doesn’t need to accompany you to Edinburgh. In fact, she probably doesn’t want to accompany you to Edinburgh. I don’t think she’s ever been.”
Nicholas turned around.
“It would be up to you, of course,” his father said. “You’re the one making the sacrifice.”
“It is so odd to think that this is how you mean to convince me,” Nicholas said.
But it was clear they were having two separate conversations, because his father then said, “It’s only marriage.”
At that, Nicholas full-on snorted. “Say that to Mother and then come back and say it again.”
His father’s expression grew peevish. “This is Georgiana we’re talking about. Why are you so resistant?”
“Oh, I don’t know…Perhaps because you summoned me away from my studies, across two countries, and then when I arrived, you did not suggest that I might have the means to solve a difficult situation. You did not ask me how I felt about the idea of marriage. You sat me down and ordered me to marry a woman who is practically my sister.”
“But she is not your sister.”
Nicholas turned away. “Stop,” he said. “Please just stop.”
“Your mother agrees that it’s the best solution.”
“Oh my God.” They were ganging up on him.
“It is the only solution.”
“A moment,” Nicholas muttered. He pressed his fingers to his temples again. His head was starting to pound. “I just need a moment.”
“We don’t have—”
“For the love of God, could you be quiet for one bloody second so I can think?”
His father’s eyes widened, and he took a step back.
Nicholas looked down at his hands. They were shaking. He’d never spoken to his father in such a manner. He wouldn’t have thought it possible. “I need a drink,” he muttered. A proper one this time. He strode back to the sideboard and filled his glass, nearly to the brim.
“The entire journey down from Scotland I wondered,” Nicholas mused, “what on earth could be the reason for such a mysterious yet blatantly unignorable summons. Had someone died, I wondered.”
“I would never—”
“No,” Nicholas interrupted. He did not desire his father’s commentary. This was his speech, his sarcasm, and by God he was going to get through it in his own good time.
“No,” he said again. “No one could have died. My father would never compose such a cryptic note for that. But what else could it be? What could possibly have led him to call me down at such an astoundingly inconvenient time?”
Lord Manston opened his mouth, but Nicholas quelled him with another hard stare.
“Although inconvenient doesn’t really quite cover it. Did you know I’m missing my exams?” Nicholas paused, but not for long enough to indicate that the question was anything but rhetorical. “My professors agreed to re-administer them when I return, but of course I had to admit to them that I didn’t know when I would return.” He took a long drink of his brandy. “Now, that’s an awkward conversation.”
Nicholas looked over at his father, almost daring him to interrupt. “I don’t think they wanted to grant the delay,” he continued, “but this is one of those cases where being the son of an earl does come in handy. Not to make friends, of course. Because no one really likes the fellow who pulls rank to get out of exams. Even if that fellow has every intention of taking those exams at a later, although as I may have already mentioned, unspecified, date.”
“I have already apologized for pulling you away from your studies,” Lord Manston said in a tight voice.
“Yes,” Nicholas said blandly, “in your highly detailed letter.”
His father stared at him for a moment, then said, “Are you finished with your petulance?”
“For the time being.” Nicholas took a sip of his drink, then reconsidered. He still had one last thing to say. “I will tell you, though, of all the scenarios that played through my mind on the journey home, I never dreamed that I would arrive to find my father had all but promised my hand in marriage.”
“Your hand in marriage,” his father repeated with a slightly uncomfortable huff. “You make yourself sound like a girl.”
“I rather feel like one right now, and I have to tell you, I don’t like it.” He shook his head. “I have new respect for all of them, putting up with us telling them what to do.”
Lord Manston snorted. “If you think I have ever managed to tell your mother or sister what to do, you are sadly mistaken.”
Nicholas set down his glass. He’d had enough. It wasn’t even noon. “Then why are you doing so with me?”
“Because I have no other choice,” his father shot back. “Georgiana needs you.”
“You would sacrifice your son for the benefit of your goddaughter.”
“That’s not at all what I’m doing, and you know it.”
It felt like it, though. It felt like his father was choosing a favorite child, and it was not Nicholas.
It was not even a Rokesby.
But even Nicholas had to admit that the lives of the Rokesbys and the Bridgertons were thoroughly entwined. They had been neighbors for centuries, but it had been this current generation that had truly cemented the bond. The lords and ladies were the closest of friends, and each had been entrusted with a godchild in the other family.
The whole thing had been made even more official when the oldest Rokesby son married the oldest Bridgerton daughter. And then the third Rokesby son had married a Bridgerton cousin.
Honestly, give someone a ball of yarn and family tree and one could make quite an incestuous cat’s cradle out of the whole thing.
“I need to think about this,” Nicholas said, because it was clearly the only thing he could say at the moment that would put a temporary halt to his father’s pressure.
“Of course,” his father said. “I do understand that this comes as a surprise.”
To put it mildly.
“But time is of the essence. You’ll need to make your decision by tomorrow.”
His father had the grace to sound at least a little bit regretful when he said, “It can’t be helped.”
“I have traveled for nearly two weeks, through at least six torrential downpours, cut short my studies, and been all but ordered to marry my neighbor, and you cannot even give me the courtesy of a few days’ time to think about it?”
“This isn’t about you. It’s about Georgie.”
“How is this not about me?” Nicholas all but roared.
“You won’t even know you’re married.”
“Are you bloody gone in the head?” Nicholas was quite sure he’d never spoken to his father in such a way; he’d never have dared to. But he could not believe the words coming forth from his father’s mouth.
His father had to have gone mad. It was one thing to suggest he marry Georgiana Bridgerton; there was a quixotic sort of logic to it. But to suggest that the act was meaningless… that Nicholas could carry on as if he had not taken her hand in marriage…
Did he know his son at all?
“I can’t talk to you right now,” Nicholas said. He stalked to the door, suddenly glad he’d never removed his muddy boots.
“No. Just, no.” He laid one hand against the frame of the door, pausing to take a steadying breath. He did not trust himself to look back at his father, but he said, “Your concern for your goddaughter is commendable, and I might—I might have listened to you had you framed your wishes as a request.”
“You are angry. I understand.”
“I don’t think you do. Your utter disdain for the feelings of your own son—”
“False,” his father snapped. “I assure you that your best interests have never been far from the forefront of my mind. If I have not made that clear, it is because I am worried for Georgiana, not for you.”
Nicholas swallowed. Every muscle in his body felt ready to snap.
“I have had a great deal longer to become accustomed to the idea,” his father said quietly. “Time does make a difference.”
Nicholas turned around to face him. “Is this what you would hope for me? A loveless, sexless marriage?”
“Of course not. But you already have affection. And Georgiana is a fine girl. I have every confidence that in time the two of you will find that you’re very well suited.”
“Your other children married for love,” Nicholas said quietly. “All four of them.”
“I had hoped for the same for you.” His father smiled, but it was a sad, wistful thing. “I would not rule it out.”
“I’m not going to fall in love with Georgiana. My God, if I were, don’t you think it would have happened by now?”
His father gave him an amused smile. Not mocking, just amused.
But Nicholas wasn’t having it. “I can’t even imagine kissing her,” he said.
“You don’t have to kiss her. You just have to marry her.”
Nicholas’s mouth fell open. “You did not just say that to me.”
“Very few marriages begin with passion,” Lord Manston said, suddenly all friendly, fatherly advice. “Your mother and I—”
“I do not want to hear about you and Mother.”
“Don’t be a prude,” his father said with a snort.
It was at that moment Nicholas wondered if he were, in fact, dreaming this entire conversation. Because he could not conceive of any other scenario that involved his father sharing any sort of intimate details about his mother.
“You’re going to be a physician,” his father said dryly. “Surely you know that your mother and I could not have produced five childr—”
“Stop!” Nicholas practically howled. “My God, I don’t want to hear about that.”
His father chuckled. He chuckled!
“I will think about it,” Nicholas finally said, not bothering to mask the sullen tone of his voice. “But I cannot give you an answer tomorrow.”
“For the love of God, are you listening to me?”
“We don’t have time for me to listen to you. Georgiana’s life is ruined.”
They were talking in circles. It was like they were out on the lawn, treading the same path until the grass was worn down to dirt. But Nicholas was too weary by this point to try to break free of the circuit, so he just asked, “And this is going to change if I take a few days to think about it?”
“If you don’t marry her,” Lord Manston said, “her parents need to find someone who will.”
Which led to a terrible thought. “Have you discussed this with Lord and Lady Bridgerton?”
His father hesitated a moment before saying, “I have not.”
“You would not lie to me about this…”
“You dare to question my honor?”
“Your honor, no. Your judgment, I no longer have any idea.”
His father swallowed uncomfortably. “I would have suggested it, but I did not want to raise their hopes in the event you refused.”
Nicholas eyed him skeptically. “You did not give the impression that refusal was an option.”
“We both know I can’t force you to marry the girl.”
“You’ll just be profoundly disappointed in me if I don’t.”
His father said nothing.
“That’s answer enough, I suppose,” Nicholas muttered. He sank back into a chair, exhausted. What the hell was he going to do?
His father must have realized that he’d had enough, because he cleared his throat a few times, then said, “Why don’t I get your mother?”
Nicholas hadn’t meant to sound quite so truculent, but really, what was his mother going to do?
“She has a way of setting me at ease when I’m troubled. Perhaps she can do the same for you.”
“Fine,” Nicholas grunted. He was too tired to argue any longer.
But before Lord Manston could leave the room, the door opened, and Lady Manston stepped quietly inside. “Is it settled?”
“He’s going to think about it,” her husband replied.
“You did not need to leave the room,” Nicholas said.
“I thought it would be easier if I was not here.”
“It was going to be difficult either way.”
“I suppose that is true.” She laid her hand on his shoulder and gave it a little squeeze. “For what it is worth, I am sorry that you have been put into this position.”
Nicholas gave her the closest thing he could manage to a smile.
She cleared her throat. It was an awkward sound. “I also wanted to inform you that we are having dinner at Aubrey Hall tonight.”
“You have got to be joking,” Nicholas said. Aubrey Hall was the home of the Bridgerton family. He could only assume that all the Bridgertons would be in attendance.
His mother gave him a regretful smile. “I’m afraid not, my son. It has been planned for some time, and I did mention to Lady Bridgerton that you would be home.”
Nicholas groaned. Why would his mother do such a thing?
“She’s terribly eager to hear about your studies. Everyone is. But you’re tired. It’s your choice.”
“So I don’t have to go?”
His mother smiled sweetly. “Everyone will be there.”
“Right,” Nicholas said, in a voice just one shade shy of bitterness. “So really, no choice at all.”
Sounded just like the rest of his life.
Georgiana Bridgerton had lost many things in her life—a leatherbound notebook she’d been particularly fond of, the key to her sister Billie’s jewelry box, two left shoes—but this was the first time she’d lost her reputation.
It was proving far more difficult to replace than the notebook.
Or the shoes.
She’d taken a hammer to the jewelry box, and while no one had been pleased with the ensuing carnage, Billie’s emerald bracelet had been safely recovered.
And never lent out again, but Georgie deserved no less.
Those were slippery, fickle things, resistant to repair and repatriation, and it didn’t matter if one had absolutely NOTHING TO DO with the aforementioned loss. Society was not kind to females who broke the rules.
It wasn’t kind to females, full stop.
Georgie sent a stare down the length of her bed to her three cats, Judyth, Blanche, and Cat-Head. “It’s not fair,” she said.
Judyth placed one silvery-gray paw on Georgie’s ankle, as sympathetic a gesture as one could expect from the most aloof of the three felines.
“It wasn’t my fault.”
This wasn’t the first time she’d said those four words, in that order.
“I never said I would marry him.”
“I know,” Georgie responded. “I didn’t even break the rules. I never break the rules.”
It was true. She didn’t. Which was probably why Freddie Oakes thought it would be so easy to break them for her.
She supposed she’d encouraged him—not to kidnap her, mind you, but she’d behaved as any proper young lady might when shown interest by an eligible young gentleman. She hadn’t discouraged him, at any rate. They’d danced once at Lady Manston’s soirée and then twice at the local assembly room, and when Georgie had gone to London with her mother, he’d called upon her quite properly at Bridgerton House.
There had been nothing—nothing—in his behavior to suggest that he was an amoral, bankrupt cad.
So when he’d suggested an outing to Pemberton’s bookshop, she’d accepted with delight. She loved bookshops, and everyone knew the best were in London.
She’d dressed exactly as an unmarried lady might for such an excursion, and when Freddie had arrived in his family’s carriage, she’d joined him with a smile on her face and her maid Marian at her side.
Ladies didn’t get into closed carriages with gentlemen without a chaperone. And Georgie never broke that sort of rule.
From the bookshop they’d walked to the Pot and Pineapple for tea and cakes, which were delicious, and again everything that was acceptable and expected in a young lady’s behavior and agenda.
Georgie really wanted to make this clear, not that anyone was listening aside from her cats. She had done nothing wrong.
When it was time to depart, Freddie was all graciousness and solicitude, carefully handing her up into the carriage before climbing in himself. The Oakes’s groom was right there to offer the same courtesy to Marian, but then Freddie slammed the door in both of their faces, pounded his fist against the ceiling, and they’d taken off like a shot, right down Berkeley Street.
They’d almost run over a dog.
Marian had been hysterical. So had the Oakes’s groom, for that matter. He’d not been in on the scheme and had feared both immediate termination of his position and eternal damnation.
The groom hadn’t been sacked, and neither had Marian. The Oakeses and the Bridgertons both knew who was to blame for the scandal and were liberal enough not to take it out on the servants.
But the rest of society… Oh ho, they’d had a grand time with the news. And the consensus was, Georgiana Bridgerton had got nothing more than she deserved.
She should thank him. It’s not as if she had anyone else lined up to offer for her.
It was all false, of course. She wasn’t an uppity spinster or an ugly hag, and as it happened, she had had a proposal of marriage, but when she’d chosen not to accept it she’d also chosen not to embarrass the man by advertising the fact.
She was nice that way. Or at least she tried to be.
She probably was a spinster, though. Georgie wasn’t certain what age marked the line between dewy-fresh and long-in-the-tooth, but at six-and-twenty, she’d likely crossed it.
But she’d done so by choice. She hadn’t wanted a London season. She wasn’t shy, or at least she didn’t think so, but the thought of those crowds, day-in-and-night-out, was exhausting. Tales of her older sister’s time in London had done nothing to convince her otherwise. (Billie had literally set someone on fire, though not on purpose.)
It was true that Billie had gone on to marry the future Earl of Manston, but that had nothing to do with her truncated disaster of a season. George Rokesby lived just three miles away, and they’d known each other all their lives. If Billie could find a husband without leaving the southeast of England, surely Georgie could, too.
It had not been difficult to convince her parents to let her skip a traditional London debut. Georgie had been a sickly sort of child, always coughing and short of breath. She’d grown out of it, mostly, but her mother still fussed, and Georgie might have used that to her advantage once or twice. And it wasn’t as if she’d lied. The choked and polluted London air could not possibly be good for her lungs. For anyone’s lungs.
But now half of London thought she’d skipped the season because she thought herself above it and the other half because she clearly had some sort of hideous defect her parents were trying to hide from society.
Heaven forfend that a lady might decide not to go to London because she didn’t want to go to London.
“I’m thinking in italics,” Georgie said aloud. That could not possibly be entirely sane. She reached toward her feet and scooped up Blanche. “Am I ruined?” she asked the mostly-black cat. “Of course I am, but what does it mean?”
Or it could have just been the way Georgie was holding her. “Sorry,” she muttered, setting her back down. But she put a little pressure on the cat’s back, nudging her into prime snuggling position. Blanche took the hint and curled up next to her, purring as Georgie scratched the back of her neck.
What was she going to do?
“It’s never the man’s fault,” she said out loud.
Freddie Oakes wasn’t holed up in his bedroom, trying not to hear his mother sobbing over his misfortune.
“They’re probably fêting him at his club. Well done, you,” Georgie snipped out in the overblown accents of the English elite. Which was to say, her accent, but it was easy to make it sound like something grotesque.
“Making off with the Bridgerton chit,” she mimicked, “That’s forward thinking of you. She’s got four hundred thousand a year, I’ve heard.”
Have four hundred thousand a year, that was. No one did. But exaggeration made the story better, and if anyone had a right to embellish it was she.
“Didja tup her? Do the deed? Poke her good?”
Dear God, if her mother could hear her now.
And what would Freddie say to such a question? Would he lie? Would it matter? Even if he said they hadn’t had intercourse—
And they hadn’t. Georgie’s knee to his ballocks had more than made sure of that.
But even if he told the truth and admitted that they had not slept in the same bed, it did not matter. She’d been alone in a carriage with him for ten hours, then alone in a room with him for another three before she’d managed to metaphorically dismember him. She could possess the world’s most intact maidenhead and she’d still be deemed deflowered.
“My hymen could be three feet thick and no one would think me a virgin.”
She looked over at the cats. “Am I right, ladies?”
Blanche licked her paw.
Judyth ignored her.
And Cat-Head… Well, Cat-Head was a boy. Georgie supposed the old orange tabby wouldn’t understand, anyway.
But all the indignation in the world could not stop Georgie’s imagination from running back to the clubs of London, where the future leaders of the nation were undoubtedly still gossiping about her downfall.
It was horrible, and awful, and she kept telling herself that maybe they weren’t talking about her, that maybe they’d moved on to things that really mattered, like the revolution in France, or the state of agriculture in the north. You know, things they should be bothering with, since half of them were going to be taking up seats in the House of Lords at some point.
But they weren’t. Georgie knew they weren’t. They were writing her name in that damned betting book, setting the odds that she’d be Mrs. Oakes by the end of the month. And she knew enough of callow young men to know that they were writing ditties and laughing uproariously.
Georgiana Oakes, princess of the pokes.
God, that was awful. And probably accurate. It was exactly the sort of thing they’d say.
Little Miss Bridgerton, isn’t she a… a…
Nothing rhymed with Bridgerton. Georgie supposed she should be grateful for that.
She’ll have to marry you now, oh ho ho.
Georgie’s eyes narrowed. “Like. Hell.”
Georgie tipped her ear toward the door. Her mother was coming down the hall. Wonderful.
“I’m in my room, Mama.”
“Well, I know that, but—” Her mother knocked.
Georgie wondered what would happen if she did not respond with the expected, “Come in.”
Another knock. “Georgiana?”
Georgie sighed. “Come in.”
She really wasn’t that contrary. Or maybe she just didn’t have the energy.
Lady Bridgerton entered, shutting the door carefully behind her. She looked lovely, as she always did, her eyes made especially blue by the cornflower silk shawl draped over her shoulders.
Georgie loved her mother, she really did, but sometimes she wished she wasn’t quite so effortlessly elegant.
“Who were you talking to?” her mother asked.
“Oh.” This did not seem to be the answer her mother was looking for, although in truth Georgie could not imagine what would have been preferable—that she was in deep discussion with the cats?
Her mother managed a small smile. “How are you feeling?”
Surely her mother did not want an honest answer to that question. Georgie waited a moment, then said, “I’m not really certain how to answer that.”
“Of course.” Lady Bridgerton sat gingerly on the edge of the bed. Georgie noticed that her eyes were a little puffy. She swallowed. It had been nearly a month, and still, her mother was crying every day.
She hated that she was responsible for this.
It wasn’t her fault, but she was responsible. Somehow. She didn’t really feel like working out the details.
Georgie picked up Judyth and held her out. “Want a cat?”
Lady Bridgerton blinked, then took her. “Yes, please.”
Georgie stroked Blanche, and her mother stroked Judyth. “It helps,” Georgie said.
Her mother nodded absently. “It does.”
Georgie cleared her throat. “Was there something in particular you wished to tell me?”
“Oh. Yes. We are expecting guests for dinner.”
Georgie avoided a groan. Just. “Really?”
“Please don’t take that tone.”
“What sort of tone does one take at a moment like this?”
Her mother set Judyth down. “Georgiana, I understand that this is a very difficult situation, but we must forge on.”
“Can’t I forge on tomorrow?”
“Darling.” Her mother took her hand. “It’s just family.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“What does that matter?”
Georgie stared at her mother. “Is that not what the partaking of a meal is all about?”
Lady Bridgerton’s lips tightened, and under any other circumstances, Georgie would have awarded her mother points for not rolling her eyes.
“Everyone is coming to dinner, Georgiana. It would look very odd if you weren’t there.”
“Everyone who cares about you.”
“Anyone who cares about me will understand why I am not hungry. Ruination, Mother. It’s quite the appetite suppressant.”
“Don’t what?” Georgie demanded. “Make light of it? It’s all I can do.”
“Well, I can’t.”
“You don’t have to. But you have to let me do it. Because if I don’t I’m going to cry.”
“Maybe you should.”
“Cry? No. I refuse.” Besides, she already had cried. All it had done was make her eyes hurt.
“It can make one feel better.”
“It didn’t make me feel better,” Georgie retorted. “Right now all I want to do is sit on my bed and say hateful things about Freddie Oakes.”
“I support your hateful musings, but eventually we will have to take action.”
“Not this afternoon,” Georgie muttered.
Lady Bridgerton shook her head. “I’m going to have a word with his mother.”
“What will that accomplish?”
“I don’t know,” Lady Bridgerton admitted. “But someone should tell her what a terrible person her child is.”
“She either already knows or she won’t believe you. Either way, all she’s going to do is advise you to make me marry him.”
That was the rub. Georgie could make all of her problems go away. All she had to do was marry the man who’d destroyed her life.
“We certainly won’t force you to marry Mr. Oakes,” Lady Bridgerton said.
But there was a wistful hint left unspoken—that if Georgie decided she did want to marry him, they wouldn’t stand in her way.
“I suppose everyone is just waiting to see if I turn up pregnant,” Georgie said.
“Oh, please, Mama. You know that’s what everyone is wondering.”
“Because I told you I didn’t lie with him. And you believe me. But no one else will.”
“I assure you that is not true.”
Georgie gave her mother a long stare. They’d had this conversation already, and they both knew the truth, even if Lady Bridgerton was loathe to say it out loud. It did not matter what Georgie said. Society would assume Freddie Oakes had had his way with her.
And how could she prove them wrong? She couldn’t. Either she showed up in nine months with a baby and everyone congratulated themselves on being right about that Bridgerton chit, or she kept her svelte figure and they all said that it didn’t prove a thing. Lots of women didn’t get pregnant on the first try.
She was still soiled goods, baby or no.
“Well.” Her mother stood, clearly deciding that the conversation was more than she could bear. Frankly, Georgie couldn’t blame her. “Dinner is in two hours.”
“Do I have to go?”
“Yes. Your brother is coming, as is Violet, and I believe they are bringing the boys to spend the night in the nursery.”
“Can’t I go eat with them?” Georgie asked, only half-jesting. At least Anthony and Benedict didn’t realize she was a pariah. Up in the nursery she was still jolly Aunt Georgie.
Her mother gave her a steely look, indicating that she heard the comment and was choosing to ignore it. “Lord and Lady Manston are coming as well, as are George and Billie. And I believe Nicholas is down, too.”
“Nicholas? Isn’t he meant to be in Edinburgh?”
Lady Bridgerton gave a delicate shrug. “All I know is what Helen told me. He came down early.”
“That’s very odd. The term ends next month. I should think he would have exams.”
Her mother looked at her curiously.
“I pay attention to details,” Georgie said. Honestly, didn’t her mother know this about her by now?
“Regardless,” Lady Bridgerton said, setting her hand on the doorknob, “you cannot cry off now. He’s come all this way.”
“Not to see me.”
“Georgiana Bridgerton, you cannot molder in your room.”
“I wasn’t planning to. Toasted cheese with the boys sounds marvelous. We’ll build a fort. And I’ll bring the cats.”
“You can’t bring the cats. They make the baby sneeze.”
“Very well, I won’t bring the cats.” Georgie smiled magnanimously. “But we will build a fort. Nicholas can join us if he wants. He’d probably prefer it to dinner with you lot.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“I’m not, Mama. I’m really not.”
“You are an adult, and you are having dinner with the adults, and that is final.”
Georgie stared at her mother.
Her mother stared back.
Georgie gave in. Or maybe she gave up. “Fine.”
“Good.” Her mother pulled the door open. “This will be good for you. You’ll see.” She started to exit, but then Georgie stopped her.
Lady Bridgerton turned around.
Georgie realized she didn’t know why she’d called out. Somehow, despite all the ways her mother had been driving her absolutely batty—she just hadn’t been ready to let her go.
“Do you think…”
Georgie went quiet. What did she want to know? What would help? Anything?
Her mother waited, quiet. Patient.
When Georgie finally did speak her voice was small. Not weak, but small. And tired. “Do you think that somewhere there is a society where men can’t do things like this to women?”
Her mother went still, which to Georgie seemed odd, because it wasn’t as if she’d been moving before. But somehow the stillness spread. From her body to her eyes to her very soul.
“I don’t know,” her mother said. “I hope so. Or at least I hope there will be.”
“But not now,” Georgie said. They both knew it was the truth. “Not here.”
“No,” her mother said. “Not yet.” She turned to go, then paused to look back over her shoulder. “You will come to dinner?”
It was a request, not an order, and Georgie felt an unfamiliar prick of tears behind her eyes. Not the tears—those were familiar. She’d cried a lifetime’s worth of tears in the past few weeks. Tears of sorrow, of frustration, of rage.
But this was the first time in a long time she’d felt gratitude. It was amazing how nice it felt to be asked rather than told. To have someone recognize the fact that she was a human being and deserved the right to make her own choices, even if it was about something as trivial as dinner.
“I’ll be there,” she told her mother.
She might even enjoy herself.
She picked up one of the cats as her mother left the room. Who was she kidding? She wasn’t going to enjoy herself. But she supposed she could try.
End of Excerpt
Awards & Achievements
- First Comes Scandal debuted at #8 on the New York Times Combined Print and E-book Fiction list for the week of May 16, 2020.
- First Comes Scandal received a starred review from Library Journal, which declared: "Nicholas and Georgie will be a hit with longtime readers and newcomers alike."
- Three weeks on the USA Today Bestseller list, peaking at #8.
- Three weeks on the Publishers Weekly Mass Market Bestseller list, plus a lovely review: "Quinn’s fans will delight in the sparkling prose and progressive central couple."