<Love in the Time of Scandal>
Love in the Time of Scandal

Penelope Weston does not like Benedict Lennox, Lord Atherton. He may be the suave and charming heir to an earl, as well as the most handsome man on earth, but she can't forget how he abandoned a friend in need-nor how he once courted her sister, Abigail. He's the last man she would ever marry. If only she didn't feel so attracted to the arrogant scoundrel…

Once upon a time, Benedict thought he and Penelope got along rather well. But, though he needs a wealthy bride to escape his cruel father's control, spirited Penelope just doesn't suit his plans for a model marriage—until a good deed goes awry, and scandalous rumors link his name to Penelope's. She might not be the quiet, sensible wife he thought he wanted, but she is beautiful … beguiling … and far more passionate than he ever imagined. Can a marriage begun in scandal become a love match, too?

Love in the Time of Scandal (Scandalous, #3)

Reviews & Honors

★ "[S]hrewdly matched protagonists, abundance of heady sexual chemistry, and satisfying measure of sharp wit make [this] a stellar addition to Linden's fabulously entertaining Scandalous series." Booklist

Top Pick for June 2015 "Adventure adds a dash of spice to [this] delightful historical romance …" BookPage

"A smart, poignant, deftly written romance …" Kirkus Reviews

"The London of 1822 sizzles in Linden's third Scandalous novel …" Publisher's Weekly

Inside Story & Bonus Features

Third in the Scandals series, following It Takes a Scandal. Lady Samantha's story is told in A Study in Scandal, a novella.

For everyone wondering about the ending, yes, there is another book: Six Degrees of Scandal. And yes, it answers all the questions about Olivia Townsend and the terrible trouble she's in…and reveals the real Lady Constance.

Just for fun: What sort of scandal would you be caught in? Take the quiz and find out.

Visit my Pinterest board for this story, for various visuals related to the story.

Prologue

<Love in the Time of Scandal>1805

Stratford Court, Richmond

Perseus lay in pieces on the floor. His arm, divorced from his body, held out the severed head of Medusa as if to ward his attacker off, and indeed, Benedict Lennox thought it might well have turned him to stone.

Before he fell, Perseus had held the head aloft, poised in mid-stride. The Gorgon's face was twisted with rage and her eyes seemed to follow a person. It was hideous, even frightening, but Benedict's father said it was a masterpiece, and Father knew art. As such it was displayed in a prominent position on the landing of the main staircase of Stratford Court, with a large mirror behind it to display the rear. Benedict always tried not to look right at it when he passed, but there was no avoiding it now. The base rested against the remains of the mirror, while Perseus and his trophy were scattered in pieces across the landing, amid the glittering shards of broken glass.

"Do you know anything about this?" The Earl of Stratford's voice was idle, almost disinterested.

His son swallowed hard. "No, sir."

"No?" The earl rocked back on his heels. "Nothing at all? Do you not even recognize it?"

Oh no. That had been the wrong answer. He searched frantically for the right one. "No, sir. I didn't mean that. It's a statue of Perseus."

Lord Stratford made a soft, disappointed noise. "Not merely a statue of Perseus. This is one of the finest works of art by a great sculptor. See how exquisitely he renders the god's form, how he encapsulates the evil of the Gorgon!" He paused. "But you don't care about that, do you?"

Benedict said nothing. He knew there was no correct answer to that question.

Stratford sighed. "Such a pity. I had hoped my only son would pay more attention to his classical studies, but alas. Perhaps I should be grateful you recognized it at all. Our entire conversation would be for naught otherwise."

Benedict Lennox gripped his hands together until his knuckles hurt. He stood rigidly at attention, mesmerized by the shattered glass and stone before him.

His father clasped his hands behind him, rather like Benedict's tutor did when explaining a difficult point of mathematics. "Now, what else can you tell me about this statue?"

"Something terrible happened to it, sir."

"Was it struck by lightning, do you think?" asked the earl in exaggerated concern.

The sky outside the mullioned windows was crystal clear, as blue as a robin's egg. "Unlikely, sir."

"No, perhaps not," his father murmured, watching him with a piercing stare. Benedict longed to look away from that stare but knew it would be a mistake. "Perhaps it was a stray shot from a poacher?"

Stratford Court was set in a manicured park, surrounded only by gardens, graveled paths, and open rolling lawns. The woods where any poachers might roam were across the river. Benedict wished those woods were much closer. He wished he were exploring them right this moment. "Possible, but also unlikely, sir."

"Not a poacher," said Stratford thoughtfully. "I confess, I've quite run out of ideas! How on earth could a statue of inestimable value break without any outside influence? Not only that, but the mirror as well. It's bad luck to break a mirror."

<Love in the Time of Scandal>He stayed silent. He didn't know, either, though he suspected he was about to be punished for it. Bad luck, indeed.

"What do you say, Benedict? What is the logical conclusion?"

His tongue felt wooden. "It must have been someone inside the house, sir."

"Surely not! Who would do such a thing?"

A flicker of movement caught his eye before he could think of an answer. He tried to check the impulse, but his father noticed his involuntary start and turned to follow his gaze. Two little girls peeped around the newel post at the bottom of the stairs. "Come here, my lovely daughters, come here," said the earl.

Benedict's heart sank into his shoes. Suddenly he guessed what had happened to the mirror. Samantha, who was only four, looked a little uncertain; but Elizabeth, who was seven, was pale-faced with fear. Slowly the sisters came up the stairs, bobbing careful curtsies when they reached the landing.

"Here are my pretty little ones." The earl surveyed them critically. "Lady Elizabeth, your sash is dropping. And Lady Samantha, you've got dirt on your dress."

"I'm sorry, Father." Elizabeth tugged at her sash, setting it further askew. Samantha just put her hands behind her back and looked at the floor. She'd only recently been allowed out of the nursery and barely knew the earl.

"Your brother and I are attempting to solve a mystery." The earl waved one hand at the wreckage. "Do you know what happened to this statue?"

Elizabeth went white as she stared at the Gorgon's head. "It broke, Father," piped up Samantha.

"Very good," the earl told her. "Do you know how?"

Elizabeth's terrified gaze veered to him. Benedict managed to give her an infinitesimal shake of his head before their father turned on him. "Benedict says he does not know," Stratford said sharply. "Do not look at him for answers, Elizabeth."

In the moment the earl's back was turned to them, Elizabeth nudged her sister and touched one finger to her lips. Samantha's brown eyes grew round and she moved closer to Elizabeth, reaching for her hand.

Stratford turned back to his daughters. "Do either of you know?" Elizabeth blinked several times, but she shook her head. "Samantha?" prodded their father. "It would be a sin not to answer me."

Samantha's expression grew worried. Benedict's throat clogged and his eyes stung. He took a breath to calm his roiling nerves and spoke before his sister could. "It was my fault, Father."

"Your fault?" Fury flashed in the earl's face though his voice remained coldly calm. "How so, Benedict?"

What should he say? If the earl didn't believe his story, he'd be whipped for lying, and then his sister would be punished for the actual crime, the nursemaid would be sacked for not keeping better watch over her charges, and his mother would be excoriated for hiring the nursemaid at all. And all over an ugly statue that everyone tried to avoid seeing.

<Love in the Time of Scandal>A fine sweat broke out on his brow. Boys at school told of lying to deny their misdeeds, but how did one lie to claim a crime? He would have to ask, next term. Not that it would help him now.

His breath shuddered. "It was a cricket ball, sir. I was tossing it and—and it got away from me so I lunged to catch it—" His stomach heaved. He'd be whipped hard for this. "I apologize, sir."

For a long moment Stratford stared at him in the narrow-eyed flinty way he had. Like a hawk, he seemed not to need to blink. "When did this carelessness occur?"

"Not long ago, Father." His heart was pounding painfully hard, but he made himself continue. Elizabeth looked like she would cry, and that would help neither of them. "I was trying to find a maid to fetch a broom so I could sweep it up."

The blow on the back of his head made him flinch. "Viscounts do not sweep," snapped the earl. "Fetch a broom, indeed!"

"No, Father," he whispered.

"Nor do they lie!" The second blow was harder, but he was ready for that one. The earl paced around him, his coat tails swinging. "Elizabeth, where is your nursemaid?"

"In the garden, Father." Her thin voice quavered.

"Return to her with your sister, and do not wander off again." He turned back to Benedict. "Come with me."

Elizabeth shot him an anguished glance as she took Samantha's hand. He saw her stoop and grab a doll, lying almost out of sight one step down, as they hurried down the stairs. It was her favorite doll, with the blue silk dress and the painted wooden head with real hair. He hoped she shook the broken glass out of the doll's clothing.

It was a long walk to the earl's study. Benedict counted every step to keep his mind from what was to come, his gaze fixed on his father's heels striding in front of him. Twenty-two steps down to the ground floor. Forty steps to the north. Eleven to the west. Six to cross his father's study and stand before the wide, polished desk with the ornate pen and inkstand.

"I cannot abide liars, Benedict." The earl walked around his desk to the wide windows that looked out toward the river. "You should know that by now."

Benedict stole a glance out the windows. The river glittered placidly, invitingly. It was a beautiful summer day and he'd finished his lessons early, planning to take the punt across the river to the wilder bank. His friend Sebastian was probably sitting up in the old oak tree right now, dangling his feet over the water and waiting for him to come. They'd recently begun a determined search for a long-lost legendary grotto. Everyone said it had been filled in years ago but Lady Burton, who owned the estate where the grotto had been—and hopefully still was—had granted them permission to look for it. Benedict was secretly sure that grotto would prove the perfect spot to hide when his father was in a fury. If he knew where it was, he'd run from the room right now, call to his sisters to follow him, and row them all across the river. They could stay in the grotto indefinitely; Sebastian would smuggle them food from his house, and they would never return to Stratford Court again. After a while they would send a note to their mother, and then she, too, would run away and join them in the woods. The four of them could live there forever, climbing trees and washing in the river, and never facing another thrashing over a broken statue or anything else.

<Love in the Time of Scandal>The earl lifted the thin rod that stood against the window frame, bursting the moment of wishful thinking. "Not only a liar, but a careless one as well. That statue is irreplaceable. And yet you didn't come to confess at once. I must have been remiss, if you thought that would escape my notice." He circled the desk. "Nothing escapes my notice."

"No, sir."

"Well?" The rod slashed down and made a loud crack against His Lordship's boot. "What are you waiting for?"

He cast one more longing glance at the river and the distant woods before closing his eyes. It would be at least a week before he could escape to them now. Gingerly he laid his hands flat on the desk and braced himself.

"I grow tired of this, Benedict. I expect more from you."

"I know, sir," he whispered, ashamed that his voice shook. His father despised weak, fearful people.

"No," said the earl quietly. "I don't think you do—yet." He raised the rod and began.

It was dark when his bedroom door opened. "Ben?" whispered Elizabeth nervously. "Are you awake?"

He raised his head, wincing as his back throbbed anew. "Yes."

There was a rustle and the door closed with a quiet click. "I managed to save a bit of milk." She crouched down next to his bed and held up the cup. "I think Nanny looked the other way on purpose."

He pulled himself toward the edge of the bed. From his shoulders to his hips, he ached. Awkwardly he sipped from Elizabeth's mug.

"I don't think it's fair that you got a whipping and shall have only bread and water for a week."

Benedict sighed, resting his cheek on the mattress. "It doesn't matter what we think."

"I know." Her eyes filled with tears. "I'm sorry, Ben. Samantha wanted to hold my doll Bess, but I was selfish and wouldn't let her. She pulled on Bess and I pulled back, and we both bumped into the statue, and Nanny was calling us, and—and—"

"Don't worry." He reached for her hand. She scrambled nearer and leaned her head against the bed frame beside his, clasping his hand to her cheek. "Make sure Samantha knows not to tell about Bess."

She nodded. "I will. I told her to pretend she had a nightmare and go cry in Nanny's lap while I sneaked in here with the milk. Are—are you badly hurt?"

He made a face even though his back felt like it was on fire. "Not much."

"Mother will come see you tomorrow, won't she?"

<Love in the Time of Scandal>He hoped. Sometimes his punishments included being sequestered from everyone else. Elizabeth was only able to come to him because his room was still in the nursery. Benedict thought he could bear this much better if his mother would come and stroke his hair and lay cold compresses on his back and read to him. She did that when the earl was away from Stratford Court. Of course, when the earl was away, he wasn't whipped at all.

"I wish he would go to London," whispered his sister, echoing his thoughts.

"So do I." He wished the earl would go to London, or anywhere else, and stay there forever. "You should go back to bed before Nanny realizes you're here."

She held up the cup so he could finish the milk. Greedily he sucked the last of it, then gave her a little push. "Good night, Ben," she whispered next to his ear. "Thank you."

He closed his eyes as she slipped out of the room. If he hadn't taken responsibility, their father would have begun to suspect the girls. Stratford never whipped his daughters—Benedict wondered if he would when they grew older—but he would punish them in other ways. If Stratford had seen Bess lying on the stair and realized the truth, he probably would have burned the doll. That would have broken Elizabeth's heart; she loved Bess and took very gentle care of her.

In a few days his back would stop hurting. A week with only bread and water would be miserable, but he was ten, nearly eleven—almost a man, and his little sisters needed their milk and good food more than he did. With any luck, his mother would find a way to come see him and make the days pass more quickly. And on the bright side, he would be allowed to recite his lessons here, instead of standing in the school room.

But he wished, deeply and intensely, that he had been born the son of anyone other than the Earl of Stratford.

Chapter One

<Love in the Time of Scandal>1822

London

Some people were born with an acute appreciation of the little things in life: a good book, a beautiful garden, a quiet peaceful home. Nothing pleased them more than improving their minds through reading, or practicing an art such as painting or playing an instrument, or helping the sick and infirm. Such people were truly noble and inspiring.

Penelope Weston was not one of those people.

In fact, she felt very much the opposite of noble or inspiring as she stood at the side of Lady Hunsford's ballroom and glumly watched the beautiful couples whirling around the floor. She wasn't envious … much … but she was decidedly bored. This was a new feeling for her. Once balls and parties had been the most exciting thing in the world. She had thrilled at sharing the latest gossip and discussing the season's fashions with her older sister, Abigail, and their friend Joan Bennet. None of the three of them had been popular young ladies, so they always had plenty of time to talk at balls, interrupted only occasionally by a gentleman asking one of them to dance.

At the time, they had all openly wished for more gentlemen to ask them to dance, and to call on them, flowers in hand, and beg for their company on a drive in the park. No one wanted to be a spinster all her life, after all. Whenever Joan fell into despair over her height, or Abigail fretted that only fortune hunters would want her, Penelope loyally maintained that there existed a man who would find Joan's tall, statuesque figure appealing, and a man who would want Abigail for more than her dowry.

Well, now she'd been proven right. Joan had married the very rakish Viscount Burke, and Abigail was absolutely moonstruck in love with her new husband, Sebastian. Penelope was very happy for both of them, she really was … but she was also feeling left out for the first time in her life. Her sister was only a year older than she, and they had been the best of friends her entire life—and now Abigail was happily rusticating in Richmond, cultivating the quieter society that made Penelope want to run screaming from the room. Joan's bridegroom had swept her off on a very exciting and exotic wedding trip to Italy, which Penelope envied fiercely but obviously could not share. And that left her alone, standing at the side of ballrooms once more, but this time without her dearest friends to pass the time.

"Miss Weston! Oh, Miss Weston, what a pleasure to see you tonight!"

Penelope roused herself from her brooding thoughts and smiled. Frances Lockwood beamed back, cheeks pink from dancing. Frances was on the brink of her first season, still starry-eyed at the social whirl of London. "And you, Miss Lockwood. I hope you are well."

The younger girl nodded. "Very well! I think this is the most beautiful ballroom I've ever seen!"

Penelope kept smiling. Just three years ago she'd been every bit as wide-eyed and delighted as Miss Lockwood. It was both amusing and disconcerting to see how she must have looked to everyone back then. "It is a very fine room. Lady Hunsford has quite an eye for floral arrangements."

"Indeed!" Miss Lockwood agreed eagerly. "And the musicians are very talented."

"They are." Penelope felt much older than her twenty-one years, discussing flower arrangements and musicians. Her mother was probably making the very same comments to her friends.

Miss Lockwood sidled a step closer. "And the gentlemen are so very handsome, don't you think?"

<Love in the Time of Scandal>Now Penelope's smile grew a bit rigid. Frances Lockwood was the granddaughter of a viscount. Her father was a mere gentleman, and her mother was a banker's daughter, but that noble connection made all the difference. Penelope's father had been an attorney before he made his fortune investing in coal canals, and the grime of that origin had never fully washed away. The Lockwoods were received everywhere; Frances, with her dowry less than half the size of Penelope's, was considered a very eligible heiress. Not that Penelope wanted Frances's suitors—who were silly young men with empty pockets, for the most part—but it set something inside her roiling when she saw the way they fawned over her friend.

"There are many handsome gentlemen in London," Penelope said aloud. There were, although none near this part of the ballroom, where the unmarried ladies congregated. If Joan were here, they could discuss the scandalous rakes lounging elegantly at the far end of the room, closer to the wine. But Frances was only seventeen and would fall into a blushing stammer if Penelope openly admired the way Lord Fenton's trousers fit his thighs.

Frances nodded, a beatific smile on her face. She edged a little closer to Penelope's side and dropped her voice. "Miss Weston … may I confide in you? You've been very kind to me, and I do so look up to you for advice—well, you know, on how to deal with gentlemen who are only interested in One Thing."

Oh dear. Frances meant the fortune hunters who clustered around her. Penelope tried not to heave a sigh. Unfortunately she had too much experience of those men, and too little experience of real suitors. She was probably the least suited person to be giving advice, but Frances persisted in asking her. "Is another one bothering you? If so, you must send him on his way at once. Such a man will never make you happy if all he cares for is your fortune or your connections."

"Oh no, I know that very well," replied Frances earnestly. "I've turned away Mr. Whittington and Sir Thomas Philpot and even Lord Dartmond, although my mama was not very pleased by the last one. Only when I explained to her that you had turned him down as the very lowest of fortune hunters did she relent."

The Earl of Dartmond was at least forty, with a pernicious gambling habit. Mrs. Lockwood was a fool if she even considered him for her daughter, earl or not. "I'm sure you'll be very happy you did, when you meet a kinder gentleman who cares for you."

The younger girl nodded, her face brightening again. "I know! I know, because I have met him! Oh, Miss Weston, he's the handsomest man you ever saw. Always so smartly attired, and the very best horseman I've ever seen, and a music lover—he listened to me play for almost an hour the last time he called, and said I was a marvel on the pianoforte." Frances looked quite rapturous; she was very fond of the pianoforte and practiced for an hour each day, something Penelope couldn't fathom surviving, let alone enjoying. "And what's more, he's heir to an earl and has no need of my fortune. Mama is so pleased, and Papa, too. He's been calling on me for at least a fortnight now, always with a small gift or posy, and he's the most charming, delightful gentleman I could imagine!"

Penelope nodded, hoping it was all true. "How wonderful. I told you there were true gentlemen out there. They just require some hunting."

Frances laughed almost giddily. "There are! My other friends were so very scandalized when I refused to receive Mr. Whittington, because he's the most graceful dancer even if he is horribly in debt, but you were entirely correct. I credit your wise advice for the happiness I now feel—indeed, for the very great match I'm about to make! May I present you to him? He's to attend tonight."

<Love in the Time of Scandal>For a moment Penelope felt like saying no. It was bad enough that she had to feel old and unwanted next to Frances. Her friend was sweet and kind, but also somewhat silly and naïve. It was bad enough to see Joan and Abigail marry deliciously handsome men; Penelope loved them and wanted them to be happy. She also wanted Frances to be happy, but tonight it just felt a bit hard to see Frances find her ideal man and be swept off her feet in her very first year in London, while Penelope had been overlooked for three years now by all but the most calculating fortune hunters.

But that was petty. She mustered another smile. "Of course. You know I always like to meet handsome men." Frances's eyes widened at the last, and Penelope hastily added, "I'm especially pleased to meet one who adores you."

Frances's smile returned. "He does, Miss Weston, I really believe he does! He's even hinted that he means to speak to my papa soon." A very pretty blush colored her cheeks. "How should I respond, if he asks me about that?"

"If you want to marry him, you should tell your father that he's the man for you. And stand by your conviction," she added. "Parents may not always understand your heart, so you must be sure to tell them emphatically."

"Yes, of course." Frances nodded. "I hope you approve of him, Miss Weston."

"Your approval is what matters." Penelope wondered if she had ever been so anxious for someone else's validation of her opinion. She would have to ask Abigail, the next time she saw her sister.

"I see him," said Frances with a little cry of nervous delight. "Oh my, he's so handsome! And his uniform is very dashing! Don't you think so?"

Penelope followed her companion's gaze and saw a group of the King's Life Guards, making their entrance with some swagger. Instinctively her mouth flattened. She'd met a few of them last summer, when one of their number, Benedict Lennox, Lord Atherton, had courted her sister. Penelope was sure he'd never been in love with Abigail, and when Abigail confessed her love for another man, Lord Atherton reacted like a thwarted child. Penelope hoped he wasn't in the crowd, but then she caught sight of his dark head.

She repressed the urge to walk the other way. She hadn't seen him since they last parted, when he'd reluctantly helped solve a years-old mystery that had tarred the name of the man Abigail loved. Sebastian Vane had stood accused of stealing a large sum of money from Lord Atherton's father, and Atherton himself had done nothing to disprove it—even though he'd once been Sebastian's dearest friend. Penelope grudgingly admitted that Atherton had been fairly decent after that, but she still thought he was insincere and always had an eye out for his own interest, whatever truth or justice demanded.

It wasn't until Atherton turned and looked toward them that Penelope realized she was staring at him. She quickly averted her gaze and turned her body slightly, hoping he hadn't actually noticed her. However, that only gave her a good view of Frances's face, which was glowing with joy.

Because … Penelope closed her eyes, praying she was wrong. Because her brain was fitting together details, just moments too late, and they were adding up to one dreadful conclusion. Atherton was heir to the Earl of Stratford, who was a very wealthy man. He was appallingly handsome, which Penelope only acknowledged with deep disgust. And when she stole a quick glance under her eyelashes, she saw that he was heading directly for the pair of them.

<Love in the Time of Scandal>Oh Lord. What could she say now?

"Miss Lockwood." Penelope gritted her teeth as he bowed. His voice was smooth and rich, the sort of voice a woman wanted to hear whispering naughty things in her ear. "How delightful to see you this evening."

"I am the one delighted, my lord." Blushing and beaming, Frances dipped a curtsy. "May I present to you my good friend, Miss Penelope Weston?"

His gaze moved to her without a flicker of surprise. He'd seen her, and was obviously more prepared for the meeting than she was. "Of course. But Miss Weston and I are already acquainted."

Penelope curtsied as Frances gaped. "Indeed, my lord."

"I—I didn't know that," stammered Frances, looking anxious again. "Are you very good friends? Oh dear, I wish I had known!"

"No, we hardly know each other," said Penelope before he could answer. "It was a passing acquaintance, really."

Atherton's brilliant blue eyes lingered on her a moment before returning to Frances. "The Westons own property near Stratford Court."

"Then you're merely neighbors?" asked Frances hopefully. "In Richmond?"

"A river divides us," Penelope assured her. "A very wide river."

Atherton glanced at her sharply, but thankfully didn't argue. "Yes, in Richmond. Unfortunately I'm kept here in London most of the year. I believe my sister Samantha is better acquainted with Miss Weston."

"Indeed," said Penelope with a pointed smile. "I hope Lady Samantha is well."

"Yes," said Lord Atherton after a moment's pause. "She is."

Too late Penelope remembered about Samantha. In their zeal to clear Sebastian Vane's name so Abigail could marry him, the Weston girls had inadvertently resurrected a dark secret of Samantha's, one her brother had claimed would lead to dire consequences for her. Penelope hadn't wanted to cause trouble for Samantha, but Sebastian had been accused of murder and thievery; Abigail's happiness depended on exonerating him, and Samantha was the only person who could help. Penelope cringed to have brought it up, but Atherton did say she was well, so the consequences must not have been as bad as he'd predicted. Still, she did truly like Samantha—far more than the lady's brother—and she was sorry to have been so cavalier with her name.

For a tense moment they seemed frozen there, Penelope biting her tongue, Frances looking troubled, and Atherton staring at her with a strange intensity. He shook it off first. "Miss Lockwood, I hope you've saved me a dance."

Frances's smile returned, although a little less brilliantly than before. "Of course, my lord. I am free the next two."

"Excellent." He gazed warmly at her, and Frances seemed to sway on her feet.

<Love in the Time of Scandal>Penelope had to work hard to keep from rolling her eyes. How could she escape this? Thankfully she caught sight of a familiar face across the room, causing her to smile widely in relief. "You must excuse me, I see a dear friend just arriving. Miss Lockwood, Lord Atherton." She bobbed a quick farewell and all but ran across the room.

Olivia Townsend was one of Penelope's favorite people in the world. She was only a few years older than Abigail, and had been like an older sister to the two Weston girls for as long as Penelope could remember. Olivia's family had lived near the Westons and all four children had been fast friends. But while Penelope's family had prospered—greatly—since then, Oliva's had not. At a fairly young age, she'd made a hasty marriage of dubious happiness to a charming but feckless fellow, Henry Townsend, who managed to run through his modest fortune with shocking speed before his death a few years ago. Since then, Olivia had lived very modestly. It was a surprise to see her here tonight, in fact, as she didn't often attend balls.

"Olivia!"

Her friend was scanning the room and didn't seem to have noticed her approach; she jumped at Penelope's exclamation. "Oh," she said in a constricted voice. "You startled me."

She blinked. "I can see that. Whom were you expecting, an ogre?"

For a moment Olivia's face froze, as if she had in fact been on guard, but then she smiled ruefully. With a shake of her head, she turned her back to the room and squeezed Penelope's hand. "Forgive me; I was woolgathering. Are you enjoying the ball?"

"Well enough." Penelope peered closely at her. "What's wrong? You looked worried."

Olivia waved one hand. "It was nothing. How kind of you to leave your friends and join me."

Penelope barely kept back her snort. "I don't know how I could have stayed. You'll never guess who Miss Lockwood's new suitor is."

"Who?"

"Lord Atherton," whispered Penelope, after a cautious glance backward. She'd already let her temper get the better of her once tonight, and wouldn't put it past him to overhear every slighting word she spoke about him.

Olivia looked surprised. "Atherton? The gentleman who courted—?"

"The same," said Penelope grimly. "And my sister felt so cruel to turn him down! I shall have to write to her at once and assure her that, far from suffering a malaise, he's found a younger, sillier girl to marry."

"Now, Pen, you don't know that. He may be deeply attached to her."

She couldn't stop the snort this time. "She is certainly attached to him. He's the perfect man, in her telling. I don't know how I could have held my composure if I'd known who she was talking about. He sits and listens to her practice the pianoforte—can you imagine?"

"Perhaps he enjoys it." Penelope widened her eyes in patent disbelief. "Perhaps he's so smitten with her, he would be content just to sit and gaze at her," Olivia added. "It could happen."

<Love in the Time of Scandal>"Huh." Penelope made a face. Just the thought of Lord Atherton sitting and staring at her was enough to make her skin prickle.

"Well, it's Miss Lockwood's cross to bear," said Olivia practically.

"But if he marries her, I'll have to see him from time to time." Frances might be young and naïve, but she was endearing all the same, and Penelope did like her.

Olivia laughed and tucked Penelope's arm through hers. "Perhaps she'll become disenchanted and change her mind about him."

She caught sight of Lord Atherton, leading Frances about the floor in a quadrille. Frances was fairly radiating adoration as she gazed up at him. It took Penelope some effort to quell the urge to run over and warn Frances not to fall for his very handsome smile, or athletic figure, or disgustingly perfect face. "For her sake as well as mine," she grumbled, "I hope so."