Excerpt: One Kiss From Ruin

15 February, in the Year of our Lord 1870

To Mr. Daniel Hallsworth, son of the late Marquess of Edensbridge:

Upon the death of Lord Hamilton Hallsworth, challenger to the title of Marquess of Edensbridge, the challenge to the title remained unsubstantiated. Therefore, the esteemed Committee for Privileges of the House of Lords invites you to solicit for reinstatement of the Marquessate of Edensbridge, with all the rights and privileges accorded thereof. We request your presence at a Committee hearing in the House of Lords on 18 March 1870 to present your case for recognition as the rightful heir to the title of Marquess of Edensbridge

Respectfully yours,

The Hon. Mr. Charles Alby, Clerk of the Committee for Privileges, House of Lords, London, England


Spain, March 1870

Daniel Hallsworth, the once and future Marquess of Edensbridge, hung from a sail rigging and debated whether death in the Bay of Biscay was preferable to life in England. Thus far, the bay was winning.

“It won’t do you any good.” From the deck, Percival Carlyle, Earl of Granston and captain of the SS Lizette, shaded his eyes from the sun and squinted up at Daniel. “You’d survive the fall.”

“Bloody bastard,” Daniel muttered.

Granston was right. The most damage a plunge into the water might do would be a few broken bones, which, when healed, would no doubt ache like a son-of-a-bitch during the long, dreary English winters.

“What the hell are you doing up there, anyway? You do know we pay a crew to check the lines, don’t you?”

Daniel uttered a few choice oaths, took in a deep drag of the crisp, salty air, then lowered himself hand-over-hand down the reef line. A few feet from the deck, he let go and dropped to his feet, which were bare, drawing Granston’s scowl.

Daniel spotted a bottle of American whiskey and two glasses on the deck beside Granston. “I see you’ve brought sustenance.”

Granston moved his gaze from Daniel’s feet to his rolled-up trousers, then up to his sweat-soaked work shirt. “How does your current state contribute to restoring your reputation? We agreed you’d practice the role of a gentleman with our passengers.” Granston pressed his thumb to each finger as he ticked through the passenger roster. “There will be a viscount with his wife and small children, an elderly couple, a widow and her traveling companion, a government official and his secretary. Who amongst them will want to be greeted by the future marquess in his current state?”

“There was no discussion of greeting them,” Daniel said. “Only some talk of boring dinners at the captain’s table.” He pointed to the whiskey bottle. “Are you going to pour that swill or shall I?”

Granston snatched up the bottle and glasses before Daniel could reach them. “Just one drink, then you’ll go make yourself presentable.”

“Is that an order, Captain?”

Granston pulled himself up to his full height, half a head taller than Daniel, and stared down at him. “On land, we’re partners in this venture. But on the water, I’m in charge.”

In the five years since they’d started their shipping line, Granston had spent as much time as possible on the water, while Daniel had managed the business details and contracts from the company’s offices near Bilbao. Other than occasional visits to Spain to sign paperwork and carouse with Daniel, the only time Granston spent on land was to oversee their business affairs in England, where Daniel had vowed never again to set foot. Until now.

Laughing, Daniel took the glass Granston poured and lifted it in a mock toast. For all his height and deep voice, Granston’s light hair and freckled nose gave him the look of an eternal child. “Aye, aye, Captain.”

Granston lifted his glass. “To the health of the marquess.”

Daniel took a swig of his drink and grimaced. “I’d rather keep that last bit between us, at least until all the legal formalities are out of the way.”

“Your uncle did his damnedest to wrest that title away from you and failed. You can’t be worried there’s anything else he can do from the grave.”

Daniel worried about exactly that. While legally his uncle had never been able to prove Daniel’s illegitimacy, factually it was true, and he might never be able to rest easy because of it. Perhaps if the marchioness, the only mother he’d ever known, hadn’t told him the truth about his parentage on her deathbed, he would have stayed in England and fought harder to maintain the marquessate and, more importantly, to remove the blight from the Hallsworth name. But there was no changing the past five years. Nor regaining the carefree, naïve years of youth.

“Best to be cautious for the time being, especially among our guests.” Daniel took a long, slow pull of whiskey, draining the glass. “Society life will be a shock to the system after all these years.”

“To hell with society, Hallsy. Once we’ve set foot back in England, we’ll focus on pursuits of a much baser nature. Being a marquess again will add to your appeal immensely, and the fairer sex did always respond well to the look of you—something I never understood, by the way—so we’ll be the toast of the town in no time.”

“More likely the bane of it. And you’ve conveniently forgotten that if I’m to convince the Committee for Privileges of my fitness to inherit the title, I’ll need to be a paragon of virtue once we’re… home.”

Daniel had to force out that last word. It had been so long since he’d used it to describe anything for himself. If England had truly been his home, would his uncle’s supporters and gossip-mongers have been able to drive him away so easily? Would the months of canceled invitations, society mothers’ snubs, even being turned away at his late father’s own club have been enough to send him into exile? The summer he’d fallen in love and decided to marry had changed all meaning of belonging for him. It had no longer been about the place or the properties or even the title he was to inherit, but about making a life with her.

Then she’d given in to the pressure of her family. The day she’d turned him away was the day England had stopped feeling like home.

Daniel held out his glass for another steadying drink.

Granston shook his head. “Not a drop until you’re fit for company. Consider it my contribution to your status as a paragon of virtue. Once you’ve secured the title, it will be a different story.”

“And a different set of rules.” Daniel scowled at the irony of being required to play the part of saint to inherit a title, often the only thing that stood between some of the worst men Daniel had ever known and Newgate prison. But he needn’t play the part of the saint just yet. “You’d withhold a drink from one of your oldest friends? Even that nearly undrinkable swill?”

Granston crossed his arms over his chest.

“I just need one more day to get used to being on my best behavior, then I’ll do your bidding.”

“Yes, there is a certain freedom to being an outcast, isn’t there?” Granston splashed another finger of spirits into Daniel’s glass. “One more drink and one more day, but the least you can do is stop insulting my spirits. I’ll have you know, I won this off a Yank in Kathmandu, and—”

“And you were bamboozled. You did him a favor taking it off his hands. In fact, he might have played you, after all.”

Granston raised his eyebrows in feigned insult. “Now you’ve really crossed a line! Insulting my whiskey is one thing, but insulting my card skills is quite another.”

Granston carried on with his complaints, but Daniel was only half listening. Something had caught his eye. Or rather, someone. Two Englishwomen—an elderly lady and a much younger one—had just alighted from a carriage, while their servants oversaw the transfer of their luggage to the docks. Nothing remarkable about that. The bread and butter of his and Granston’s shipping line was carrying cargo, but all of their ships were equipped to ferry a small number of England’s finest citizens and their servants to and from their sojourns on the Continent.

Daniel pondered what had drawn his attention. Not the plump, gray-haired woman with the cherubically round face. Perhaps her companion, then, although he couldn’t even see the younger woman’s face, which was blocked by her large parasol. As he watched, she tossed her head, and reddish-brown curls caught in the breeze.

When the realization hit him, he sucked in his breath. Still gasping, he tossed back his drink and savored the burn that raced down his throat. Anything to stop himself from doing what he’d done far too often over the past five years. He’d see a woman with some slight similarity to the girl he had once believed he’d loved, and he’d convince himself she was there. She never was. And he’d never quite gotten used to the disappointment of it.

“What is it, Hallsy?” Granston asked. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

“Not a ghost. Just two Englishwomen. I suppose it’s time to make myself presentable after all.”

“Damn it, the lady and her traveling companion!” Granston snatched up his captain’s coat from the deck rail and slid it over his shoulders. “I should have been on the dock five minutes ago. Our man in the office promised the old girl I’d personally look after them.”

You, look after two ladies? Surely they have no idea of your reputation.”

“You will recall that I, too, have a title and the manners to go with it, when the situation requires it. Besides, I was told the lady is nigh on seventy.” Granston glanced at the dock and grimaced. “But her traveling companion looks to be an entirely different matter.”

Daniel clapped him on the back and took the whiskey bottle out of his hand. “Steady as she goes, Captain. Duty calls.”

“Of course. But I can’t be held responsible if the young woman happens to be attracted to my irresistible charms on one of those long nights out at sea, under the moon and the stars.”

Daniel chuckled as his incorrigible friend left to collect the women, but his humor was short-lived. The young woman did it again, moved in a hauntingly familiar way. After five years, he shouldn’t remember such things so well. His mind was playing tricks on him, but he’d steer clear of the young woman anyway. It wasn’t the poor girl’s fault, but damn it all if she didn’t remind him far too much of Emmeline.

He gripped Granston’s bottle more tightly and headed toward his stateroom at the opposite end of the ship. He doubted the remaining whiskey would be enough to drive memories of Emmeline from his mind, but he was willing to spend the rest of the afternoon trying to prove himself wrong.


If she’d thought she could actually make it, Lady Emmeline Radcliffe would have dived into the Bay of Biscay and swum to France. She’d rather go anywhere than the place the vessel in front of her was headed. Home. Or so it was supposed to be, though she hadn’t missed England one bit.

A gust of wind blew off the water, bringing with it the smell of rotten fish and the threat of falling into the waves, despite her decision to remain on the quay. The wind eddied under her lace-edged, cream-colored parasol and tugged it upward. Emme wrestled to bring it to heel.

“Ridiculously oversized thing.”

“The only thing wrong with the parasol, Emmeline, is your distaste for holding it.” Aunt Juliana, holding her own reasonably-sized parasol above her, laid a steadying hand on Emme’s shoulder. “And we both know it’s not the poor parasol’s fault.”

Aunt Juliana vigorously waved her fan as another gust of fish-filled sea air wafted over them. “Where on earth is the captain? He’s to escort us personally. How long does he suppose he can keep us waiting? And what kind of ship is this odd contraption, anyway?”

Emme pressed her lips together to keep from smiling. Aunt Juliana hated travel. If the doctor hadn’t ordered a trip abroad for her health, the old woman would have spent the past year in her drafty old house in Cambridge, and Emme would have spent it in London on the marriage mart, living in fear that she’d be married off to a man who wouldn’t forgive her past indiscretions.

Emme snapped her parasol shut and propped it like a cane at her side. “I don’t see why Father can’t give us one more year abroad.”

“They miss you, darling.”

That was the devil of it. Emme missed them, too, especially Mother. And Edward. She did quite look forward to seeing her older brother’s smile, so much like their dear Eleanor’s, the one she’d never see again. And going home now had other advantages. She’d be able to set to work on the plan that had been borne out of her passion for helping other women. If Eleanor were here, she’d squeeze Emme’s hand and remind her she couldn’t single-handedly save the world; then she’d warn Emme not to broach the subject with Father, as he’d never approve.

However, Eleanor couldn’t be here, and now it was Emme who squeezed her aunt’s hand when she spotted the captain walking down the gangplank toward them. “There’s our wayward captain now.”

As he approached, Emme tightened her grip on her aunt’s hand, like a small child clinging to her mother. She knew this man. Or she had, once upon a time.

The last time she’d seen him, he’d been visiting her family’s country estate with her brother during a school break. Back then, Lord Percival Carlyle had the same ginger-blond hair and mischievous glint in his gray eyes, was just as tall, and was about to take his commission in the Royal Navy. With his uniform and broad shoulders, he was even more handsome now than he’d been in his school days. Still, his looks had not held a candle to those of Edward’s other friend, with his wavy black hair and wild blue eyes.

Holding her breath and pushing down that memory, she dropped her gaze to the wharf under her feet and said a silent prayer of thanks to Eleanor, or whatever angel had been looking out for her when she’d insisted her aunt not list Emme’s name on her ticket. “Aunt Juliana, please don’t introduce me as Lady Emmeline. Call me Miss Emme Trent.”

Her aunt shot her a worried gaze. “To what end?”

She curled her toes inside her soft, worn calfskin boots, the most comfortable shoes she’d ever owned, which her father would probably make her burn, as they were far from elegant. She wore thin stockings that came up only to her ankles and one thin petticoat under her simple gray travel gown. By the time they reached England’s shores, all of that would change. She’d have to dress and speak and play the part of a lady every minute of every day, and the thought of it made it difficult to breathe.

“If I’m Lady Emmeline, daughter of the Earl of Limely, there will be obligations, even onboard ship. I’m just not ready. I’d like to take some time to myself. Rest. Write my letters to the ladies of the Spinsters’ Club.” That would be the best use of her last days of freedom, focusing on the letters to the members of the club she hoped to join, as their mission to help women in need was the same as her own.

Aunt Juliana sighed in a way that sounded much like Emme’s mother when Emme vexed her, but she still nodded her acquiescence just as the captain reached them.

“Ladies, Captain Lord Granston, at your service.”

Emme ventured a glance at his face as he flashed a smile at her aunt. He maneuvered between them and offered an arm to each of them.

“Lady Kendall, I trust your journey from Barcelona was uneventful,” he said as they stepped toward the gangplank.

“If you mean boring, young man, it was indeed.”

As he raised his eyebrows, Emme stifled a laugh.

“And you, Miss…?” The captain glanced in Emme’s direction.

“Miss Trent,” her aunt said.

“Ah, Miss Trent. Did you find the journey as dreary as my lady?” If he had recognized her as Edward’s sister, he was doing a fine job of concealing the fact.

“Yes,” she murmured.

The captain kept up the conversation. “We’re to have calm weather for the duration of our voyage. If it’s too calm and the wind fails us, we’ll turn to the most modern of coal-powered steam engines to deliver us safely to England’s bonny shores.”

As he recited what Emme assumed were impressive facts about the ship he referred to as a screw schooner, a movement to her right caught her eye. Two of the crew stood talking on the far side of the deck. At such a distance, she could hardly make out their faces, but one had dark, wavy hair. Fear caught her breath in her throat. She forced herself to exhale, and shook her head to clear the troubling thoughts.

It wasn’t Daniel. His bare feet and dirty clothes were proof of that. Seeing one of Edward’s friends had simply made her see her old beau where he wasn’t, where he could not be. After all, what was the last thing she’d heard about him? That he was exploring the silk trail in China. Or was it smuggling harem girls out of Constantinople? Or perhaps it was the story about trading in illegal ancient artifacts in South America. So many scandals had been attached to his name, she could hardly keep track of them.

“And, of course, you shall dine with me,” the captain was now saying. “Will dinner at the captain’s table suit you, Miss Trent?”

She had no intention of dining with him or anyone else on board. She and her aunt would come up with some excuse—seasickness, perhaps—to keep Emme out of his purview and diminish the likelihood of him recognizing her as Edward’s sister. But manners dictated politeness. She managed a smile. “Of course, Captain.”

Still, Emme was relieved when the captain saw them below decks and deposited them safely at the door of her aunt’s stateroom, pointing out Emme’s room beside it. As soon as he was out of sight, Aunt Juliana crossed her arms in front of her.

“The captain hardly seems inclined to let you stay out of sight. And it’s obvious you know him. He’s bound to recognize you sooner or later, and you’ll have been caught out lying to a perfectly nice young gentleman.”

Emme hoped her aunt was wrong. “I didn’t know him that well. He was one of Edward’s school friends, and I was still a child, really, the last time he saw me.”

“You’re no longer a child, and don’t think he didn’t take notice. He might see you as easy prey, without the protection of your father’s title.”

Emme hadn’t considered that potential pitfall, but she still remembered a thing or two Edward had taught her about throwing a jab and an undercut before she’d set sail for Spain. “I promise you, I won’t allow the captain or any other man to take liberties with me.” Not again.

And if any man thought otherwise, he would regret it, as she would prove herself a skilled boxer.