Excerpt from THE PERKS OF LOVING A SCOUNDREL:
From the Diary of Miss Mary Channing
May 24, 1858
Eleanor wrote today. I should have been glad to hear from her, given
that she is my twin sister and I love her dearly, but it would be
untruthful to say the contents of her letter
pleased me. Her new husband, Lord Ashington, has been called away on
business and she’s asked me to come to London to keep her company during
the last two months of her confinement.
Can you imagine? Me, in London?
My family says I must get my nose out of my books and begin to live in
the world around me. It is true I’ve never been further afield than a
day trip from home, and that I have
never slept a night outside my own bed. But why would I ever want to
leave, when I have my books to keep me company? And a trip to London is
not without its perils. I could very well end up like one of the
characters in my beloved stories, snubbed by the popular
crowd. Whispered about behind lace fans. Or worse . . . led astray by a
handsome villain and then abandoned to my fate.
Yet, how could I not go? Eleanor is my sister, and she needs me. So I
shall put on a brave face. Pack a trunk. Smile, if I must. But I can’t
help but wonder . . . which worries
The many things that could happen in London?
Or the thought of seeing Eleanor, with her handsome new husband, and
her shining, lovely life, and everything I am afraid of wanting?
London, May 29, 1858
The smell should have been worse.
She’d expected something foul, air made surly by the summer heat. Just
last week she’d read about the Thames, that great, roiling river that
carried with it the filth of the entire
city and choked its inhabitants to tears. Her rampant imagination,
spurred on by countless books and newspaper articles, had conjured a
city of fetid smells, each more terrible than the last. But as Miss Mary
Channing opened her bedroom window and breathed
in her first London morning, her nose filled with nothing more
offensive than the fragrance of . . .
she peeked out over the sill. Dawn was just breaking over the back of
Grosvenor Square. The gaslights were still burning and the windows of
the other houses were dark. By eight o’clock,
she imagined industrious housemaids would be down on their knees,
whiting their masters’ stoops. The central garden would fill with nurses
and their charges, heading west toward Hyde Park.
But for now the city—and its smells—belonged solely to her.
She breathed in again.
Was she dreaming? Imagining things, as she was often wont to do? She
was well over two hundred miles from home, but it smelled very much
like her family’s ornamental garden in Yorkshire. She didn’t remember
seeing a garden last night, but then, she had
arrived quite late, the gaslight shadows obscuring all but the front
steps. She’d been too weary to think, so sickened by the ceaseless
motion of the train that she’d not even been able to read a book, much
less ponder the underpinnings of the air she breathed.
She supposed she might have missed a garden. Good heavens, she probably
would have missed a funeral parade, complete with an eight-horse coach
and a brass band.
After the long, tiresome journey, she’d only wanted to find a bed.
And yet now . . . at five o’clock in the morning . . . she couldn’t sleep.
Not on a mattress that felt so strange, and not in a bedroom that wasn’t her own.
Pulling her head back inside, she eyed the four-poster bed, with its
rumpled covers and profusion of pretty pillows. It was a perfectly nice
bed. Her sister, Eleanor, had clearly
put some thought into the choice of fabrics and furniture. Most women
would love such a room. And most women would love such an
opportunity—two whole months in London, with shops and shows and
distractions of every flavor at their fingertips.
But Mary wasn’t most women. She preferred her distractions in the form
of a good book, not shopping on Regent Street. And these two looming
months felt like prison, not paradise.
The scent of roses lingered in the air, and as she breathed in, her
mind settled on a new hope. If there was a flower garden she might
escape to—a place where she might read her
books and write in her journal—perhaps it would not be so terrible?
Picking up the novel she had not been able to read on the train, Mary
slipped out of the strange bedroom, her bare feet silent on the stairs.
She had always been an early riser,
waking before even the most industrious servants back home in
Yorkshire. At home, the cook knew to leave her out a bit of
breakfast—bread and cheese wrapped in a napkin—but no one here would
know to do that for her yet.
Ever since she’d been a young girl, morning had been her own time,
quiet hours spent curled up on a garden bench with a book in her lap,
nibbling on her pocket repast, the day lightening
around her. The notion that she might still keep to such a routine in a
place like London gave her hope for the coming two months.
She drifted down the hallway until she found a doorway that looked
promising, solid oak, with a key still in the lock. With a deep breath,
she turned the key and pulled it open.
She braced herself for knife-wielding brigands. Herds of ragged street
urchins, hands rifling through her pockets. The sort of London dangers
she’d always read about.
Instead, the scent of flowers washed over her like a lovely, welcome tide.
Oh, thank goodness.
She hadn’t been imagining things after all.
Something hopeful nudged her over the threshold of the door, then bade
her to take one step, then another. In the thin light of dawn, she saw
flowers in every color and fashion:
bloodred rose blooms, a cascade of yellow flowers dripping down the
wrought iron fence. Her fingers loosened over the cover of her book. Oh,
but it would be lovely to read here. She could even hear the light
patter of a fountain, beckoning her deeper.
But then she heard something else above those pleasant, tinkling notes.
An almost inhuman groan of pleasure.
With a startled gasp, she spun around. Her eyes swam through the early
morning light to settle on a gentleman on the street, some ten feet or
so away on the other side of the wrought
iron fence. But the fact of their separation did little to relieve her
anxiety, because the street light illuminated him in unfortunate,
He was urinating.
Through the fence.
Onto one of her sister’s rosebushes.
The book fell from Mary’s hand. In all her imaginings of what dreadful
things she might encounter on the streets of London, she’d never
envisioned anything like this. She ought
to bolt. She ought to scream. She ought to . . . well . . . she ought
to at least
But as if he was made of words on a page, her eyes insisted on staying
for a proper read. His eyes were closed, his mouth open in a grimace of
relief. Objectively, he was a handsome
mess, lean and long-limbed, a shock of disheveled blond hair peeking
out from his top hat. But handsome was
always matter of opinion, and this one had “villain” stamped on his skin.
As if he could hear her flailing thoughts, one eye cracked open, then
the other. “Oh, ho, would you look at that, Grant? I’ve an audience, it
Somewhere down the street, another voice rang out. “Piss off!” A snigger followed. “Oh, wait, you already are.”
“Cork it, you sodding fool!” the blond villain shouted back. “Can’t you
see we’re in the presence of a lady?” He grinned. “Apologies for such
language, luv. Though . . . given the
way you are staring, perhaps you don’t mind?” He rocked back on his
heels, striking a jaunty pose even as the urine rained down. “If you
come a little closer, I’d be happy to give you a better peek.”
Mary’s heart scrambled against her ribs. She might be a naive thing,
fresh from the country, and she might now be regretting her presumption
that it was permissible to read a book
in a London garden in her bare feet, but she wasn’t so unworldly that
she didn’t know this one pertinent fact: she was not—under any
circumstances—coming a little closer.
Or getting a better peek.
Mortified, she wrapped her arms about her middle. “I . . .that is . . .
couldn’t you manage to hold it?” she somehow choked out.
There. She’d managed a phrase, and it was a properly scathing one, too. As good as any of her books’ heroines might have done.
A grin spread across his face. Much like the puddle at the base of the
rosebush. “Well, luv, the thing is, I’m thinking I’d rather let
you hold it.” The stream trickled to a stop, though he added a
few more drips for good measure. He shook himself off and began to
button his trousers. “But alas, it seems you’ve waited too long for the
pleasure.” He tipped a finger to the brim of his
top hat in a sort of salute. “My friend awaits. Perhaps another time?”
Mary gasped. Or rather, she squeaked.
She could manage little else.
He chuckled. “It seems I’ve got a shy little mouse on my hands. Well,
squeak squeak, run along then.” He set off down the street, swaying a
bit. “But I’ll leave you with a word
of advice, Miss Mouse,” he tossed back over one shoulder. “You’re a
right tempting sight, standing there in your unutterables. But you might
want to wear shoes the next time you ogle a gentleman’s prick. Never
know when you’ll need to run.”