<Six Degrees of Scandal>
Six Degrees of Scandal
978-0-06-238978-7
Read Chapter One

The only thing more irresistible than scandal …

Olivia Townsend is in trouble and out of options. Pursued by a dangerous man in search of a lost treasure she doesn't possess, she's got only two things in her favor: her late husband's diary, which she was never meant to see… and the man who was her first—and only—love. Losing him broke her heart, though she's been careful to hide it for the last ten years. But when he comes to her aid and vows to stand by her, no matter what, she can't help but hope things will be different for them this time.

Is a second chance at true love

James Weston has blamed himself for letting Olivia down when she needed him years ago, and now he'll do whatever it takes to keep her safe—and to win her trust again. He's confident he can outwit the villain chasing Olivia. But being so near her again threatens to expose every secret in his heart … even those that he swore would stay hidden forever.

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Six Degrees of Scandal (Scandalous, #4)

Reviews & Honors

"[E]xpertly written… and the undercurrent of mystery … propels the novel swiftly forward to its stunning conclusion." —Publisher's Weekly

Grade: A "I'm very happy with how this all wrapped up… What's really cool is that 50 Ways to Sin actually factors into the resolution of the primary plot of this book." —Smart Bitches Trashy Books

Grade: B+ "[A]n excellent way to end what has been one of the most consistently well-written and enjoyable historical romance series to appear in the last few years. I'm sorry to see it reach a conclusion, but am happy it's ended on such a strong note and I know it's a series of books I will revisit." —All About Romance

"Brimming with secrets, passion, mystery, plot twists, engaging characters, romance and love, this story is one that fans of historical romance will not want to miss." —Romance Junkies

"Linden has tied up any and all loose ends, and brought readers to the end of this wonderful series with panache. Well done!" —Reader to Reader Reviews

Inside Story & Bonus Features

The fourth and final book in the Scandals series. The other books are Love and Other Scandals (Joan and Tristan); It Takes a Scandal (Abigail and Sebastian); Love in the Time of Scandal (Penelope and Benedict); and two novellas, A Study in Scandal (Samantha and Gray) and All's Fair in Love and Scandal (Madeline and Douglas). A third novella is more of a coda to the series than part of it, The Secret of My Seduction; it picks up where this book leaves off, with Bathsheba Crawford turning her hand to writing naughty novels of her own …

This book reveals the identity of Lady Constance, author of the scandalous 50 Ways to Sin stories that feature throughout the series. Spoiler alert, if you haven't read the earlier books! I've been asked several times if I knew all along who the author was, and the answer is yes, I knew from about halfway through the first book.

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

For more visual inspiration, check out my Pinterest board for this book.

Part One

Do thou snatch treasures from my lips, and I'll take kingdoms back from thine.
—Richard Brinsley Sheridan

Chapter One

<Six Degrees of Scandal>1806

Sussex

Olivia Herbert knew James Weston was a rogue the first time he winked at her, one fine Sunday morning in August when butterflies were riding warm drafts of air through the open door of St. Godfrey's and Mr. Bunce the curate was droning on and on as if he meant to put every person in the church to sleep.

She was staving off the urge to do just that by watching the butterflies. James Weston, it turned out, was watching her. As her gaze followed one butterfly—a delicate white one with spots of blue on his wings, who swooped and glided effortlessly on the hazy air—it connected with James's. His family was sitting in the next pew over, and when their eyes met, the impudent boy winked at her.

She looked away at once. Not only had he caught her woolgathering, wishing she could flit about the church and out the door like that butterfly, but it was probably a sin to wink in church. With some effort she tried to focus her mind on the sermon, but within moments a bee flew overhead, and once again, quite independently of any wish to be well-behaved, her eyes tracked the insect as it buzzed away, right toward the Weston pew.

This time when he caught her eye, he grinned. Slowly, he raised one hand, and with small cautious movements, pretended to flick the bee as it flew by. Then he screwed up his face and mimed being stung, shaking his finger and sticking it into his mouth.

Olivia couldn't help it. She smiled, and a tiny giggle shook her shoulders. His grin grew wider, and he wiggled his eyebrows at her.

A sharp jab in her side made Olivia hastily jerk her gaze back to Mr. Bunce, whose voice had settled into a low drone, as if he too were falling asleep. Beside her, Mother glared from the corner of her eye. Olivia repressed a sigh. Ladies didn't giggle in church, and Mother was determined that Olivia would be a lady.

Indeed, Mother didn't even wait until they reached home. Her scolding began as they walked to their carriage after the service. "Olivia Herbert, what were you thinking? Laughing in church! What a common, hoydenish thing to do."

"I'm sorry, Mother."

"And making eyes at that boy." Mother didn't grimace, but her tone dripped with distaste. "Those upstart Westons."

"Upstarts they may be, but well-heeled ones." Father spoke for the first time, giving Olivia a measuring glance. "She could do worse."

Mother gasped. "Thomas Weston is an attorney. I want better for our daughters, Sir Alfred."

"And yet you've got to be practical, madam." Father waited as the footman helped them into the carriage. "Our girls won't have much to attract a noble husband."

"Only their beauty." Mother's gaze softened as she looked at Olivia and her younger sister, Daphne. "A lady's face, along with her sweet temper and amiable disposition, are her greatest assets, girls."

<Six Degrees of Scandal>"Yes, Mother," piped up Daphne. "I'll make you proud and marry a royal duke!"

Mother laughed gently. "I'm sure you will, my beautiful darling." It was already clear that Daphne took after her mother. Olivia wasn't sure if she took after her father or not; Father was often preoccupied with rank and money and he was very fond of wagering on the horse races, none of which appealed to her. But at the same time, Olivia didn't share her mother's keen interest in fashion or ladylike accomplishments. She supposed she might as she grew older, but at the advanced age of ten she wasn't much interested in sizing up potential husbands.

A tapping beside her broke into her thoughts. She glanced out the window and saw the boy who had lured her into trouble, grinning as he crouched out of sight next to the carriage. "Do you walk in the woods?" he whispered.

Alarmed, she shook her head, even though she did walk in the woods every chance she got. Telling him that would only cause her more trouble.

Disappointment flickered over his face. "Oh well." He stepped back. "Good bye, then." He walked back to his family. Olivia eyed them curiously. The father was tall and lean and his wife was very pretty, with a gloriously beautiful gown. Two girls about Daphne's age stood beside her, although the blond girl was fidgeting in boredom and ran up to her brother as he approached them. He laughed at whatever she said, the carefree sound floating back to Olivia's ears. Neither of his parents reproved him for laughing on Sunday.

The Herbert coachman finally snapped his whip and set the horses in motion. Olivia watched the Westons as the coach drove away. Upstarts they may be, but they looked like happy ones.

She had almost forgotten the impudent boy several days later, when she finished her lessons and was able to slip out of the house. Mother wouldn't approve, but Mother had gone into town to the dressmaker and Miss Willets, the governess, was fond of sneaking a glass of sherry and having an afternoon nap when Mother was away. This suited the girls quite well. Daphne retreated to the nursery with her dolls, where she fashioned new dresses for them out of scraps of Mother's discarded gowns, and Olivia stole a book from the library and headed for the woods. Mother said Shakespeare was vulgar and too exciting for ladies, which made Olivia eager to read his plays even though she was forced to hide away to do so.

There was a quiet little glen not too far from Kellan Hall, the Herbert home, with a fallen tree and enough sun to be pleasant without being hot. Settled on the tree, with her feet propped on a nearby stone, Olivia had just reached the magnificent scene where Romeo revealed himself to Juliet and professed his love in words that would rend the heart of any sentient being … when someone spoke behind her.

"I thought you didn't walk in the woods."

She gave a little scream and dropped her book. "You—you," she spluttered. "I am not walking!" It was a stupid thing to say, but he had interrupted at a very inopportune moment. Would Juliet return Romeo's love?

"Oh, did you come into the woods by carriage?" He jumped over the tree trunk and scooped up the book. "Romeo, eh? Do you like it?"

She glared at him and reached for the book. "Yes."

He handed it back. "It wasn't one of my favorites. My sisters wanted to act it out, but Penelope kept giggling when she was supposed to be dying."

Olivia's eyes widened. Dying? Which character died? She hoped it wasn't Juliet. "Don't tell me any more!"

"I liked that Henry V, though," he went on. "Smashing good battle. I'm James, by the way. James Weston."

She gave him a reproachful look. It wasn't proper for a gentleman to introduce himself to a lady, and he ought to know that, even if he wasn't a gentleman. "I know."

<Six Degrees of Scandal>He grinned. In the sunlight his brown hair had an auburn hue, and his eyes were sharp and lively. He couldn't be much more than thirteen or fourteen, but he was already tall in Olivia's view. "And I know you're Miss Olivia Herbert of Kellan Hall."

"Yes." She lowered her gaze to her book, hoping he would go away.

"So," he said after a moment, "if you only walk in the woods to find a place to read, you must know about the waterfall."

Her eyes stopped taking in the words on the page. "Waterfall?" she asked, intrigued in spite of herself.

He tilted his head and gave her a sly smile. "I can show you."

Slowly she closed the book. "Is it far?"

"No."

And before she knew it, she was following him along a winding track through the trees, to where a small stream splashed over a fall of rocks. It was no taller than Olivia herself, but it brought a smile to her face. She'd lived at Kellan Hall all her life and never discovered it.

James pulled off his boots, and then his stockings, and then—to Olivia's shock—he climbed up and stood on the highest rock, letting the water foam over his feet and wet his trousers. "Don't you want to climb up?"

She looked longingly at the rocks. The thought of water running over her feet and ankles was tempting, but not worth it. "I'd get wet, and my mother would be displeased."

"Pity that. It's great fun."

Slowly she looked down at her shoes and stockings. Maybe if she held up her skirts, very high… But that would also be improper. "I'd better not."

"Oh," he said in disappointment. "You're a coward."

Olivia's eyes widened. "How rude!"

He shrugged, kicking at the water and sending a spray over the grass. "I can tell you want to get up here but you won't."

"I'd get all wet…"

"So walk around until your feet and skirt dry. That's what my sisters do."

Olivia stole another look at the frothing stream. "Your sisters climb up there?"

"And they're even younger than you. But if you're too scared…" He started to climb down.

Her mouth firmed. She was not scared. "Those rocks are slippery. I don't want to fall."

He grinned as if he knew he'd won. "I'll hold your hand."

And he did. Olivia peeled off her stockings and slippers, folded up her skirts as high as she dared—all the way above her knees—and carefully stepped into the water. She gasped at the cold initially, but it was a hot day and soon the water felt blissful. James held her hand as promised and coaxed her to stand on the topmost rock at the edge of the waterfall. She balanced on the wide flat stone and a grin spread across her face. The water rushed over her toes and ankles and she thought she'd never done anything this daring in her whole life. "How did I never discover this?"

Still holding her hand, James laughed. "Good girls stay at home."

<Six Degrees of Scandal>"So I'm bad for coming out here?"

"No," he said. "A curious girl. I like that kind."

That allayed Olivia's moment of worry. Curious didn't sound so terrible. She exchanged a tentative smile with James.

When their feet had gone numb, he helped her climb down and back onto the grass.

"Do you play dolls still?" he asked as he put his boots back on.

Olivia shook out her skirts, relieved to see that she had kept dry except for a small spot on one side. "Sometimes."

"Good. Follow me." He started off.

"Mr. Weston!"

He turned at her indignant cry. "Call me Jamie. James if you must. You might as well come meet my sisters, who drove me from the house today with begging me to play dolls. My mother said I had to entertain them but they don't like the way I play dolls." He made an aggrieved expression. "Why can't a doll put on a fine dress and then have a sword fight with another doll? What else have dolls got to do all day?" He shrugged. "You probably know better how to do it the way they want."

"But—I can't—"

"Why not?"

"I can't go into town without permission," Olivia finally said. Privately she was curious to meet the Westons. Her parents didn't view most of the local families as their equal, and Olivia and Daphne weren't allowed much contact with other children. And even though she didn't spend as much time with dolls as Daphne did, she wasn't immune to wanting to see the Weston girls' dolls, which were sure to be much finer than anything at Kellan Hall. But if Mother saw her, she'd be in such trouble.

He grinned as if sensing another victory. "We don't live in town anymore. We took possession of Haverstock House this week, right over the hill."

Her eyes popped open. Haverstock House was the finest house in the county, and lay between Kellan Hall and town. It belonged to the elderly Earl of Malke, who rarely visited since his wife's death. Now the Westons owned it?

"I expect my mother will call on your mother soon, now we're neighbors," he went on. "Will she let you come visit then?"

Olivia doubted it. "Perhaps."

Jamie Weston flashed his confident grin once more. "I'll wager a copper penny she will."

To Olivia's mingled delight and surprise, Mother herself brought up the Westons that evening. "Haverstock House!" she exclaimed. "They've bought Haverstock House! Everyone in town is speaking of it. What is the neighborhood coming to, Sir Alfred?"

Father grunted. "I hear Mr. Weston paid a very pretty sum for it. Lord Malke's steward mentioned wagons of new furnishings from London."

That gave Mother pause. "Indeed!"

"I told you: well-heeled." Father glanced at her, sitting quietly in the corner stitching her sampler. "Their boy seemed to like our Olivia."

Instead of protesting that she was only a child, Mother turned to look at her as if struck by a new thought. "Did he…?" But although Olivia was curious to hear what her mother thought, that was the last of the conversation.

<Six Degrees of Scandal>Within days, true to Jamie's prediction, Mrs. Weston came to call on Lady Herbert. Olivia only saw her leaving, but the next day Jamie himself came to Kellan Hall. He greeted her mother very politely, even charmingly, and then glanced at Olivia. "I've come to escort Miss Herbert to Haverstock House."

Olivia barely managed not to goggle at him like a fool, but her mother was beaming. "Yes, of course. Olivia, fetch your bonnet. Mrs. Weston has invited you to visit her daughters, and I consented. Good society is so important to raising young people with manners and decorum!"

"Yes, ma'am," she managed to say, even as her heart jumped. She ran for her bonnet and pelisse.

Jamie grinned as they left her house. "I told you my mother would call."

Olivia couldn't keep back an excited laugh. "I just didn't know it would result in this!"

From then on she was permitted to visit the Westons almost at will. Daphne was also invited, but she only went a few times, and stopped entirely after getting into an argument with Penelope Weston over whether ladies should be allowed to drive carriages. But Olivia was soon fast friends with both Abigail and Penelope, who became as dear as sisters to her as the years went by.

Jamie was there as well, although less frequently as they all grew older. He wasn't sent away to school as most boys were but had a series of tutors and instructors. Mr. Weston traveled frequently on business and often he took his son with him. Olivia thought that sounded dull, but Jamie said he enjoyed it immensely.

"It's far better than sitting at home learning Latin verbs," he told her. "I'd much rather visit shipyards and manufactories and see how things are really done. Even visiting the bankers is more intriguing than any mathematics exercise."

She had to smile. "When you put it that way, perhaps I agree."

He laughed. "It's all in the way I put it! You're much too easy to persuade, Livie. You'd let yourself be tempted into all kinds of bad behavior, wouldn't you?"

Only by you, she thought. He'd been able to lead her astray since that first morning in church. "I don't know what you mean," she told him. "I'm a very respectable girl."

"And yet I like you anyway," he replied gravely.

She put out her tongue at him and he pulled one of her loose curls, just like any brother and sister.

Chapter Two

<Six Degrees of Scandal>When Olivia was fourteen and Jamie seventeen, he went off to Cambridge. By then she was spending more time at Haverstock House than at home. Finances had grown tight at Kellan Hall, and Sir Alfred was only too happy to let Olivia take French and dancing lessons with the Weston girls. That way Mr. Weston paid for her lessons, and when she returned home she was expected to teach Daphne. Her sister complained bitterly about having no dancing master of her own, and Lady Herbert consoled her by buying her nicer new dresses than Olivia, despite Sir Alfred's warnings about economy.

In time the Westons noticed. More than once Mrs. Weston gave Olivia a bonnet or a dress, declaring that she had ordered it but then changed her mind or gained too much weight for it to fit. She begged Olivia to take them off her hands. From the triumphant smiles Abigail and Penelope wore whenever she accepted, Olivia guessed that it was a conspiracy. Still, as her dresses from home got tighter and shorter, and her bonnets shabbier, she was grateful. It was obvious that the gifts were well within Mrs. Weston's means. Haverstock House, as grand as it was to begin with, had been transformed into the most elegant and modern house in all of Sussex. Abigail said her parents were talking of moving to London permanently, if they could find a suitable house. Olivia instinctively knew this didn't mean a modest house they could afford; it meant a house fine enough to tempt Mr. Weston, who was now—if one could believe the rumors—one of the wealthiest men in southern England.

She quailed at the thought of losing her friends. The Herberts were not going to London, even though Olivia would soon be old enough for a Season. Lady Herbert had spoken of it for years, planning first Olivia's and then Daphne's debut into the best society, where they would naturally collect a number of eligible suitors and make fine matches. From time to time Sir Alfred rumbled a protest, but Lady Herbert was set on it, and Lady Herbert's will generally ran roughshod over her husband's. The only problem this time was that there really truly was no money.

The summer Olivia turned seventeen, the hints of impending disaster grew ominous. Creditors came to Kellan Hall and demanded to see Sir Alfred, who spent more and more time in his study, the door stoutly barred. One by one servants left or were sacked, and the house grew a little threadbare. All Daphne's pleas for new dresses were brusquely refused. Lady Herbert took to driving five miles to the next town for her shopping. And every day Olivia quietly slipped away to Haverstock House, where Jamie had come back from university, now tall and filled out and more handsome than before.

However, he was no less discerning and direct. "What's wrong at home, Livie?" he asked one day as they walked into town, where Mrs. Weston had sent her son on an errand. Abigail and Penelope had been squabbling all day and were confined to their rooms to compose essays on familial affection, so Olivia decided to walk with him. Except for brief visits home, Jamie had been gone for three years. As much as she loved Abigail and Penelope, she'd missed him a great deal. It felt right to walk with him again.

"Why would you think something is wrong?" Olivia affected astonishment. The Westons had never asked, and she had never spoken, about the circumstances at Kellan Hall. She didn't want anyone to know how her family was sinking. It must be clear to anyone who looked closely, but that didn't make it less mortifying.

"I heard things." He wiggled his eyebrows at her. "How bad is it?"

"Now where would you hear things, James Weston?" she asked in exasperation. "You've only been back in Sussex a fortnight!"

He vaulted over a fence and held out his hand to help her climb the stile. "It's no secret that Sir Alfred has abused his credit with every merchant in town. My parents are worried about you."

"Oh? I hadn't heard."

<Six Degrees of Scandal>He gave a tsk and shook his head. "You're not a good liar."

"I'm not rude enough to call someone a liar to her face."

He didn't laugh, as she'd expected. "I hope you won't lie to me."

His tone gave her pause. The truth was, she didn't lie to him. It was impossible anyway, for he could always tell when she tried. "I don't," she said softly. "I don't think I can. So I wish you wouldn't ask me about home."

He studied her face a moment. "It's that bad?"

Olivia closed her eyes and nodded.

"Well." He seized her hand. "We ought to have some fun."

"But your errand!" she protested as he pulled her off the path into the woods.

He waved it off. "This is more important."

Through the woods he led her, past the waterfall, along the stream to the pond in the meadow where they all used to fish and swim before he went away. But today they had no poles or bait. "What now?" she asked, shading her eyes against the glare off the water.

He pulled off a boot. "Let's go swimming."

"No!"

"Why not?" His other boot came off and he shucked his coat. "We've swum here for years."

"That was long ago!" Olivia watched in shock as he took off his waistcoat and began untying his neckcloth. What he said was true, and yet… It was different when they were young. Obviously they'd all grown up—but as he stripped, she became exquisitely conscious of how much he had grown.

"Have you forgotten how to swim?" He pulled his shirt over his head.

Olivia took a step backward. Heaven help her, she wanted to go swimming with him, but she also felt the wickedest urge to throw her arms around him. She couldn't tear her eyes off his bare chest, and her lungs seemed to be squeezed in a giant fist. Jamie had been a handsome lad, and was now a devilishly attractive young man. "No."

"Coward?"

"I am not," she retorted on instinct. One learned quickly that being a coward was not permissible with the Westons.

"Then into the water with you, dressed or not!"

She shrieked and danced away from his grasp, then took off her dress and stays. She hung them on a nearby tree for safekeeping and peeled off her stockings and shoes. Jamie had already removed his trousers and dove headlong into the pond, wearing only his drawers. Olivia waded in and soon found herself dunked, splashed, and goaded deeper into the water. They laughed and swam, until Olivia tried to put a lily pad on his head. Jamie vowed revenge and took chase, vowing to throw her into the deep end of the pond.

He finally caught her and trapped her, her back against his chest. Olivia shrieked and flailed. He yelled as she splashed them both, and lashed his other arm around her. "I got you!" he crowed. "I win!"

She was laughing so hard tears streamed down her face. "You cheated!" She writhed once more, knowing it was hopeless, and when he tried to grab her tighter, his hand slid over her breast.

<Six Degrees of Scandal>They both went still, panting heavily from the skirmish. Tentatively his fingers moved, swirling over her flesh. Under his thumb her nipple rose firm and eager. Olivia shivered.

"Livie," he whispered, his voice somehow deeper than usual, and then he kissed her nape.

Her breath caught. Who would have guessed that a boy's lips on the back of her neck could feel so exciting? Her back bowed and her head fell forward. She shut out the little voice in her head warning that this was unbecoming behavior for a baronet's daughter, and gave herself over to the thrill of being worshipped.

His lips moved over her neck. "I shouldn't kiss you," he whispered next to her ear. "I know it, but I don't want to stop, Livie…"

She twisted in his embrace. "Don't stop." She wound her arms around his neck and exulted as his mouth claimed hers almost before she finished speaking. It was everything a girl's first kiss should be: gentle and sweet and given by the boy she loved.

His arms shifted, lifting her higher. She giggled until he kissed her again. Buoyed by the water, her legs rose and curled around his waist. His shoulders heaved, and his hands went to her hips, pulling her tightly against him, and Olivia felt the contact with some astonishment. She broke the kiss and raised her head. Jamie met her gaze, his own eyes wide and clear. His mouth was set in a firm white line and he seemed to be having trouble controlling his breathing.

"I'm going to walk out of the pond," he said in that too-deep voice.

If they got out of the water, her soaked chemise would cling transparently to her body. Already she could feel his skin through the thin linen. He was warm and solid and still held her as if he feared to let go. This was truly unbecoming—even immodest—behavior, but without a word she nodded.

He sloshed out of the water with long, careful strides. Olivia's heart skipped a beat as the breeze blew across her wet skin and made her shiver. Jamie noticed, but he didn't laugh or tease her. As soon as he reached the thick tall grasses a few feet from the water, he lowered himself to his knees, still holding her wrapped around him. "Livie," he said, his hazel eyes boring into hers, "if you want to put your dress on, you should run and fetch it."

"If I don't?" she whispered.

He swallowed. "Then I'll kiss you again and again."

A smile broke across her face. "I want you to." He blinked, and she blushed. "Please."

So he did. They tumbled into the sun-warmed grass and explored each other with gentle touches and caresses that grew increasingly bold. He made her giggle and she made him squirm. In the warmth of the day their undergarments dried quickly, which caused her chemise to ride up until his hand landed on her bare knee.

"Livie." He seemed mesmerized by the feel of her skin. He traced the shape of her knee, his fingertips swirling over it. "Livie, do you know about making love?"

"Ah—oh," she said awkwardly. Elizabeth Miller, who was only a year older than Olivia but already married, had regaled a number of young ladies in town about the secrets of wedded life. "A—a little. Have you … Have you done it?" Her face grew hot just asking the question.

Jamie blushed too, all the way down his neck. "No." He drew a delicate line along her thigh, nudging the chemise higher. "I think of doing it with you, though, all the time. You've grown up so beautiful."

Her heart seemed to swell with happiness. No one at her house thought she was beautiful; that was Daphne, the golden child. And this wasn't just anyone telling her she was beautiful, it was Jamie, whom she'd loved since she was ten years old. "I love you, Jamie," she blurted.

He looked at her, not astonished but pleased. "And I love you. Have forever."

<Six Degrees of Scandal>She gasped, then gave a laugh of pure delight. "You do?"

"You didn't know?" He sounded wounded.

"You never said!"

He grinned, his hazel eyes sparkling at her from underneath the wild tangle of his still-drying hair. "I just did." The grin faded. "And I can't stop thinking of you. All the time I was gone, Livie. I missed you."

"I thought making love was something only married people did," she said nervously. Elizabeth's stories of great pleasure and shocking delights echoed in her mind. It was tempting—so very tempting—but also daunting.

He didn't seem frightened in the slightest. "I always knew I'd marry you some day. You're the best girl in England, Livie."

Olivia's mouth fell open. "You—you want to marry me?"

Jamie winked. "Of course I do!" She scowled, and he tried to subdue his cocksure grin. "I should have asked with more dash. Or with poetry. Girls like poetry, don't they? ‘If only you will marry me, how very happy we will be.'" Olivia snorted with laughter. He gathered her closer. "'If you decide to answer yes, I would then take off your dress.'" His fingers ran up her thigh again as she gasped in exaggerated indignation—and a deep and primitive pulsing excitement. "'You have the finest bosom in Britain, and I would like to kiss your skin.'"

"That's horrid!" Olivia was laughing so hard she could hardly speak.

"I hope you mean the poetry and not the sentiment." He caught her as she tried to squirm away, holding her against him. The motion sent his hand sliding up her leg, higher and higher until Olivia abruptly froze. Her heartbeat roared in her ears. His fingers were right there, brushing a very private place, and for a moment the tantalizing touch made her breath catch.

Jamie had also gone still. Slowly, gently, he ran his fingertips over her skin, gliding up the inside of her thigh but stopping short. Olivia's whole body twitched as those fingers trailed back down. He started to tug her chemise hem down. "I'm sorry, Livie, you don't have to—" he began, his voice hoarse and strained.

"No." She twisted to face him. "I want to marry you, too." She placed her hand against his bare chest. "I do, Jamie. Yes."

He threw back his head and gave a whoop before snatching her against him, even as she laughed. He held her close and kissed her neck and face profusely until she beat on his shoulders with her fists. "Stop," she gasped between peals of laughter. "Stop!" He did, and she caught her breath. He was so handsome like this, tousled and bare-chested, and she'd never felt so happy. "Make love to me."

His gaze sharpened. "Truly?"

She nodded, her heart bursting with love. Her father would give permission—the Weston wealth would ensure that, if nothing else—and then she really would be a Weston, with Jamie to make her laugh and kiss her senseless and satisfy this new craving of her body. "I want you to make love to me."

"Far be it from me to refuse a lady." He pulled the drawstring on her chemise. "The fellows at school said it takes practice to do this properly."

"If you don't know how it's done," she began, but he cut her off, sliding over her and pressing a kiss on her mouth. The feel of his body on top of hers stopped any other protest.

"I'm a quick study," he promised, and then he set about proving it, learning which touches made her giggle and which ones made her twist and sigh in longing. Her chemise came off, then his drawers, and under the bright Sussex sun he made love to her. It was joyful, if a little awkward, and hurt a bit at first, but he cradled her against him and moved so tenderly she clung to him until he shouted and flung back his head in ecstasy. And when he realized she hadn't found that same rapture, he started all over again, testing and tormenting every inch of her skin until he learned the secret and left her weak and trembling and absolutely dazed with adoration for the young man holding her.

"Oh my," she gasped as he collapsed on the ground beside her. "Oh my, Jamie. That was…"

"Brilliant?" He opened his eyes a little and gave her a triumphant, lazy smile. "I agree. Just wait until we've got some practice."

<Six Degrees of Scandal>Later he walked her home, hand in hand, and told her his plans—as usual, Jamie had a plan, and it was a grand one. He'd been learning from his father and wanted to make his own investments. Mr. Weston had promised him a generous amount of capital and Jamie said he could provide for a wife within a year. Olivia blushingly agreed they would wait, although not perhaps without more of that wonderful lovemaking, and he left her with a scorching kiss at the lane to Kellan Hall. Olivia barely felt the overgrown lane under her feet: she was in love, engaged to be married, and everything in life was perfect.

Her mother caught her returning to the house. "Olivia Herbert! What happened to your dress?"

Olivia blushed; it had spent the afternoon flung over a tree branch, and looked it.

"And your hair!" Her mother peered closer and frowned. "What were you doing at Haverstock House?"

"Oh." She cleared her throat. "Jamie was sent into town, and I walked with him…"

"And where did you walk that you come home looking as though you've been rolling in the grass?" exclaimed Lady Herbert. And then she stopped. Her eyes went wide and her mouth opened in a silent O. Before Olivia could say a single explanatory word, her mother seized her arm and hurried her into the nearby parlor, closing the door behind them. "Did that boy take liberties with you?" her mother demanded. "Do not lie to me."

Happiness still sizzled in her veins. When she married Jamie, she wouldn't have to live with her parents anymore, and hear how much her mother preferred Daphne's looks to hers, or listen to her father complain about the cost of two daughters. She would have a home with someone who loved her—a whole family of people who loved her—and she need never return to Kellan Hall. "I'm in love," she boldly said. "And he loves me, Mother."

Lady Herbert caught her arm in a fierce grip. "Did he tumble you? You have the look of it about you."

Olivia felt her face grow hot. She pulled loose of her mother's hold. "He wants to marry me."

"Does he, now?"

"Yes, and I know Father won't refuse, because Mr. Weston's promised Jamie a very handsome sum now that he's finished his studies at university." Lady Herbert fell back, blinking. Olivia felt invincible. "I'm engaged to him, Mother, and I begged him to make love to me. I know he's not the viscount you used to dream I would wed, but you've still got Daphne. Perhaps Mr. Weston will be generous in the settlements and you'll be able to take her to London for a Season as you always hoped."

Instead of shrieking or scolding, Lady Herbert clapped her hands together. "Olivia," she choked. "Oh, my dear! You'll be the saving of us!" And she threw her arms around her daughter.

For the next few days she was her parents' favorite child. Lady Herbert kept her at home, saying she must make the young man come to her. Daphne, who must have already been promised a Season as a result of Olivia's impending marriage, was loving and sweet. Even Father clasped her in his arms and called her ‘dear child,' promising to wait at home every day until Jamie came to ask his permission.

The only thing that came to Kellan Hall, however, was a note. Olivia's heart fluttered as she tore it open and saw Jamie's familiar handwriting, sharp and sprawling from the speed with which he wrote…that he was leaving for a few weeks and going into Wiltshire to see a canal where his father was considering investing. He closed the note with his usual farewell, and if he hadn't written her name with the O looking vaguely like a heart, she would have thought it was a letter from any passing acquaintance. Still, she trusted him, so she put the letter aside and when her parents asked why he hadn't come yet, she told them the truth. Truth, she had been taught from birth, was virtuous, and obedient children never lied to their parents.

But before long, Olivia realized that was precisely the worst thing she could have done.  

Chapter Three

<Six Degrees of Scandal>Her father barged into her room two days after the note arrived. "Did you lie to me?" he demanded.

"What? No!"

He raised his hand as if he would strike her, but only curled his fingers into a trembling fist. "About the Weston boy," he snarled. "I've just been to Haverstock House and Thomas Weston has no idea his son is engaged to marry you."

Olivia gaped, more at her father's fury than at Jamie's actions. Jamie had never lied to her. "But—no, Father, he did. I swear to you! Perhaps he didn't tell his father yet, but I'm sure when he returns he'll explain everything—"

He slapped her. "He's not expected back for weeks, perhaps months! When is this wedding to take place?"

"Not for another year," she cried, cowering away from him. "We agreed—he won't have enough income until then—"

"I cannot wait a year!" He grabbed her shoulders. "Did he put a babe in your belly?"

"I don't know," she sobbed.

Sir Alfred pushed her away, and she toppled onto the bed behind her. "If he has, this will all end well," he muttered. "If not…" He shook his head and stalked from the room.

Olivia huddled in stunned silence on her bed. Jamie must have forgotten to speak to his father before he left, or not been able to, or not thought it urgent. If only Mother had let her go to Haverstock House as usual…

She scrambled off the bed and flung open her desk, dashing off an impassioned letter. A few tears streaked down her sore cheek and blurred the ink, and when she read it over, the words were illegible, incoherent, or both. Jamie would think she'd gone mad. Olivia hesitated, then ripped the page in half and took out a fresh sheet. She dried her eyes and took a deep breath, and wrote a much more civilized letter asking when he would be home. She didn't want to tell him of her father's furious rant, so she simply wished him luck in his journey, and signed it with her name—taking care to make the O look like a heart, to show her love.

Feeling better, but still anxious, she walked to Haverstock House. Nothing was in uproar there, so Mr. Weston must not have taken alarm at her father's visit. She was at Haverstock so often, the butler merely told her where to find Abigail and Penelope. They were in the garden, Abigail dutifully sketching a rose and Penelope plucking the petals off another.

"There you are!" Penelope cried at her appearance. "You've abandoned us for over a whole week now!"

"I'm sorry." Olivia sat down at the table where they worked. "Did you write your essay?"

Penelope rolled her eyes. "Yes, horrid thing. Mama made us read each other's aloud at dinner that night, and Jamie laughed at mine."

Olivia twitched at his name. "I'm sure he didn't mean it. I—I understand he's away from home now?"

"Thankfully," murmured Abigail, still sketching.

"All the way to Wiltshire," Penelope added with satisfaction. "He won't be home for months."

"Oh?" Her voice rose an octave. "Why so long?"

"Jamie doesn't go anywhere directly," said Abigail. "The last time Papa sent him somewhere, it took him over a fortnight to arrive. He kept stopping off to see interesting libraries or inventors along the way. And then once he gets to his destination, he wanders off. I daresay he won't spend half his time at the canal works; he'll find his way to see the boat builders' workshop, and the bankers' offices who funded the canal, and landowners who live nearby. Papa says he does a good job investigating, but he takes forever at it."

<Six Degrees of Scandal>"Good riddance," Penelope declared. "He's been like a caged bear this week! Three weeks in Sussex, and he couldn't wait to be off." She put down her ruined rose. "Livie, are you ill?"

"No," she said faintly. "I just… I had a question to ask him. Could I write to him?"

Penelope shrugged. "Who knows?"

Olivia wet her lips, which were bone dry. "Is your mother home?"

The girls directed her to the morning room, where Mrs. Weston rose to greet her. "How are you, Olivia? Your father was here this morning."

"I know."

"He was quite agitated, and hinted at a match between you and James. Neither you nor James ever mentioned such a thing to either of us, and Mr. Weston didn't know what to say."

Put that way, neither did Olivia. Jamie hadn't told his parents. His sisters said he was wild to be out of the house. Had she imagined the whole thing?

At her silence, a slight frown touched Mrs. Weston's brow. "I didn't mean to upset you. Mr. Weston put your father off because he didn't want to presume there was more affection between you and James than he knew. You're both so young. We would never encourage a match between you if your hearts were not engaged."

"No, I—I am fond of Jamie," she said in a faltering voice. "Very fond, Mrs. Weston."

"I see." The older lady's eyes were keen and direct, so like her son's. "Did he make you any promises, Olivia?"

Her composure wavered. "I'm not sure," she said softly.

Mrs. Weston smiled and clasped her hand. "I wouldn't be disappointed, my dear. You're like a daughter to me already! James couldn't do better than choose you, and if you love him in return, you would have my blessing—and Mr. Weston's as well."

That made her feel marginally better. She took a deep breath and pulled out her letter. "Could I send this to Jamie? I didn't know he would be gone so long…"

"Of course. We'll make this right. Give me your letter and I shall send it to him, along with one of my own. Weston men can be oblivious to all outside their immediate interest unless something smacks them in the face."

Gratefully Olivia handed over the note. By the time she reached home her confidence was restored. Jamie would get her note and come home; he would speak to his father, then to her father, and everything would be fine.

Except it was not. A week later no reply had come, nor had Jamie. Another week passed the same way, and Sir Alfred abruptly told them to pack. They were going to Tunbridge Wells the next day. No explanation was given, and no opposition was tolerated. The whole house felt quiet and tense as they obeyed, and the atmosphere didn't improve when they reached Tunbridge. In fact, Olivia was just as happy not to speak to her parents at all, until she discovered the reason they had come to town.

One evening a gentleman named Mr. Walter Townsend dined with them, and the next night he brought his son Henry. Henry was an amiable fellow, moderately handsome and not too tall, who chatted merrily with everyone. Olivia was seated next to him, and when dinner was over and her father asked how she found him, she agreed that he was very charming.

"Very good," said Sir Alfred. "You're to marry him Monday next."

Olivia thought she'd misheard him. "What? No—I'm engaged to Jamie Weston! I cannot marry someone I only met tonight!"

"You can. Walter Townsend is an old friend of mine from university. His son needs a bride, and you need a husband." He fixed a hard look on her. "Especially one who won't mind that you're not as fresh as you look."

<Six Degrees of Scandal>She felt a rise of panic in her chest. "I won't!"

"Thomas Weston said his son is too young to marry. The boy himself told you he wanted to wait a year. Why do you think he did that? He only wanted under your skirt, Olivia." He shrugged as she recoiled. "It's not just him, it's all men. You were a silly fool to let him, and now you've got to pay the price."

She sat gaping. By now she knew she wasn't carrying a child, which meant there was no reason not to wait until Jamie returned. But then… I cannot wait a year, her father had said. This wasn't about her honor at all. "How much is Mr. Townsend offering for me?"

Her father scowled. "None of your concern."

"I think it is." Her voice rose shrilly. "Why must Mr. Townsend resort to buying a bride for his son—is he a lunatic? Will I end up murdered in my bed?"

"Don't be ridiculous. Henry's a good man in need of a wife to settle him." Her father turned to go, but paused. "And the answer is four thousand pounds. A handsome sum that will save Kellan Hall."

When Olivia went to her mother, the answer was the same. Lady Herbert's only consolation was an offer to buy her bride clothes in Tunbridge Wells. The marriage contract was signed, the days sped by, and Olivia prayed every night that Jamie would arrive in time. If he appeared even a moment before the wedding service was done, she would run away with him, and damn the marriage contract. She sent a second note and then a third, but deep in her heart she feared there wasn't enough time. Wherever he'd gone, her letters weren't catching up to him. She lay awake at night plotting how she would refuse to speak during the ceremony, but her father had taken care of that. The curate was paid well and he plowed right over her stubborn silence. With a bemused look Henry slid a ring on her finger, and it was done.

Six days later Jamie arrived. Olivia heard his voice, echoing urgently through Henry's small house, and then she heard him pounding up the stairs. He burst into the drawing room, dusty and disheveled and wild-eyed. "Tell me it's a lie," he demanded. "Tell me…" His voice died as she deliberately folded her hands to show her ring.

She'd had six days to prepare for this. Six days to acquaint herself with the knowledge that Jamie would never be hers, that the stolen day by the pond in the woods was a halcyon moment of bliss, not a portent of her life to come. So far Henry didn't seem a bad sort—he was so charming, everyone liked him immediately, and he had a generous allowance from his father—but he would never be Jamie.

And part of her blamed Jamie for everything. He'd made her a vow, then carelessly walked away without securing her father's permission. If only he'd come to see her father right away. If only he hadn't gone rambling about the countryside without so much as a farewell visit. If only he'd stayed in posting inns where her letters could have reached him. But he hadn't, and now she was paying for it.

"How do you do, Mr. Weston?" she said evenly. "Won't you sit down?"

"No!" He strode across the room, stopping only when she took a step backward. "Why, Livie? What happened?"

The anguish in his voice was real, and it tore at her heart. Whatever else he was guilty of, Jamie did care for her. Her composure wobbled a little. "My father arranged the match. He was concerned for my reputation."

He flinched as if struck before his horrified gaze dropped to her midsection. "My God. You're not—?"

"No!" She glanced uneasily at the door, but a helpful servant had closed it behind Jamie. "I'm not carrying your child."

Relief flooded his face, followed quickly by angry confusion. "Then why such haste? Even if he feared such a thing, I should have been the one he turned to."

<Six Degrees of Scandal>"But you weren't here," she said tightly. "You left without a word of where you would be or when you would return."

He flung up his hand in a gesture of impatience. "I only intended to be gone for a few weeks. I wrote and told you so."

"But you gave him no reason to wait!" Her temper was fraying. "You never came and asked his permission—"

"As if he would have refused," Jamie scoffed. "We both know he would have squeezed my father for every last farthing and fetched a curate as soon as the contract was signed."

It was true, and it made her furious. "Oh, you know he would have consented, but still you couldn't be bothered to speak to him? What does that say about you, James Weston?"

He flushed. His mouth compressed. "I didn't know he was so anxious to marry you off."

"Neither did I!" She pressed her hands to her face, which burned with anger and humiliation. "You didn't even tell your parents… Perhaps you didn't really mean to go through with it, and that whole day was a lark to you—"

"Don't say that," he interrupted. "I meant every word I said!"

"But those were only words, Jamie—they were not binding, and they couldn't be exchanged for money!" She was breathing hard now, vibrating with agony. "That's all my father wanted—the money. If you'd been there, he would have got it from you, but you weren't, so he got it from Mr. Townsend. And that's why I'm married to someone I don't even know."

Jamie stared at her, looking stunned and angry and very young. For the first time Olivia felt like the older and wiser one of them; it seemed as though she'd aged a decade in the last week. "I didn't know. You—you didn't tell me!" Growing agitated again, he plunged one hand into his pocket and pulled out her letter, crumpled and stained. "I was all the way to Wiltshire before it caught up to me—my mother sent it to the wrong inn. You didn't hint at anything like this! Livie, you only asked when I planned to return home. If my mother's letter hadn't scolded me, I wouldn't have taken any alarm at all. I turned back but I would have raced like the wind had I know how urgent it was…" He shook his head, frustrated and perplexed. "Olivia, we talked about waiting a year. I didn't think there was any rush to speak to your father. I wanted to establish myself first."

"You'll have plenty of time now," she replied before she could stop herself.

Jamie's eyes flashed. "You never told me how bad things had become at home. I knew your father was in debt but I'd no idea he was this desperate."

Olivia gave a despairing laugh. "Well. That hardly matters now."

The wild, mad light went out of his eyes. All the light, in fact. He stared at her ill-fated letter for a moment, running his thumb over it to remove the creases. "No. I suppose not."

For a long moment, so long it seemed to last an eternity, they stood in silence. Olivia's fury had vanished and now she had to blink back tears. The urge to fling herself in Jamie's arms and beg him to take her away was almost overpowering. She knew it would be fruitless, and unfair to Jamie, but at this moment, when her life seemed to be ending just when she'd thought it was about to begin, she felt she would gladly throw away any chance of respectability if only they could be together.

"Jamie," she began, then stopped. She mustn't think of him that way any longer. "Mr. Weston. I hope we can remain friends. Anything else between us"—her voice shook, and she paused—"would be improper."

In the days since her wedding, she'd had time to think about whether she wanted to shut Jamie, and all the Westons, out of her life. It might be easier, but they had been everything to her for years. Her own family had never loved her as much as the Westons did, and now she could barely stand to think of her parents.

But to keep her friendship with Abigail and Penelope, she would have to maintain a civil relationship with Jamie. The only way she could do that was to keep him at arm's length, now and forever. To lose her love was terrible, but to lose everyone she cared about was unbearable.

She'd told herself this several times over the last few days, and wept each time. Odd how it hurt far more now that she had to tell him.

"This is not how I hoped our relationship would change," she went on, forcing out each word, "but what's done is done. It would be best if we kept our regrets to ourselves."

He raised his head. His eyes were dead when they met hers. "Yes. If that is what you wish, Mrs. Townsend." The name sounded leaden and ugly on his lips, and sent another spasm of anguish through her. "I apologize for disturbing you. As you say, what's done is done." He paused, his gaze searching, almost as if waiting for her to beg him to carry her away with him. And Olivia's resolve wavered. God help her, if he said they should run off, propriety be damned…

<Six Degrees of Scandal>"I suppose that's all there is to say," he said instead. "Good day." His steps sounded heavy as he turned and left.

A few minutes later Henry strolled in. "Who was that?"

Olivia had retreated to the window. Below her, Jamie collected the reins of his horse and swung into the saddle. Without once looking up, he turned and rode off. Pressure built inside her chest until she thought she would suffocate. He was leaving, and all her hopes and dreams lay in ashes in his wake. She laid her palm against the pane of glass as if she would draw him back to her side

"Are you unwell, Olivia?" Henry asked absently. He was reading the racing report and didn't even glance at her. "Did the fellow upset you?"

She swiped a stray tear from her cheek. Down in the streets below, Jamie turned a corner and disappeared from view. "No," she whispered in reply to her husband's question. "I'm fine. It was just an old friend."

And nothing more. Never anything more.