Mariel's throat constricted as she and her maid reached the corner of Hereford Street. She dreaded entering the house, facing her mother's unabashed joy at her impending marriage and her father's palpable relief.
Her spirits sank lower and lower as she and Penny neared the end of the block.
When they were within steps of the town house, its door opened and a man emerged.
He turned towards them and the sun illuminated his face. "Mariel?"
This man was the one person she thought never to see again, never wished to see again. He was the man to whom she'd been secretly betrothed, the man who to often inhabited her thoughts.
The man who had deserted her.
He was as tall as ever; his hair, as dark; his eyes that same enthralling hazel. His face had become leaner these last four years, more angular with tiny lines creasing the corners of his eyes.
She straightened, hoping her ability to mask her emotions held strong.
"Leo." She made her tone flat. "What a surprise."
His thick dark brows knitted. "I--I have come from your father. I called upon him."
"My father?" Her voice rose in pitch. "Why on earth would you wish to see my father?" She had not even known he was in London.
He paused before closing the distance between them and his hazel eyes pleaded. "Will you walk with me?"
She glanced over at Penny, who was raptly attending this encounter. Mariel forced herself to face him again. "I can think of no reason why I should."
He reached out and almost touched her. Even though his hand made no contact, she felt its heat. "Please, Mariel. Your father would not listen. I must speak with you. Not for my sake, but for yours."
For her sake?
She ought to refuse. She ought to send him packing with a proper set-down. She ought to turn on her heel and walk into her house and leave him gaping in her wake.
Instead she said, "Very well. But be brief."
He offered her his arm, but rather than accept it, she turned to Penny. "You must follow."
Leo frowned. "I need to speak with you alone."
Mariel lifted her chin. "Then speak softly so she does not hear, but do not ask me to go with you unchaperoned."
They crossed Park Lane and entered Hyde Park through the Cumberland gate. The park was in its full glory, lush with greenery and flowers and chirping birds.
He led her to one of the footpaths. It was too early in the afternoon for London society to gather in carriages and on horseback for the fashionable hour. The footpath was empty. Once Mariel would have relished finding a quiet place where they could be private for a few moments. She would have pretended that nothing existed in the world but the two of them. This day, however, it made her feel vulnerable. She was glad Penny walked a few steps behind them.
Off the path was a bench, situated in an alcove surrounded by shrubbery, making it more secluded than the path itself.
Leo gestured to the bench. "Please sit."
"No." Mariel checked to make certain Penny remained nearby. "Speak to me here and be done with it."
He was so close she could smell the scent that was uniquely his, the scent that brought back too many memories. Of happy days when she'd contrived to meet Leo in this park. They'd strolled through its gardens and kindled their romance.
He faced her again and she became acutely aware of the rhythm of his breathing and of the tension in his muscles as he stood before her. "I will be blunt, because I have not time to speak with more delicacy."
His tone surprised her.
"Please do be blunt," she responded sarcastically.
She wanted to remain cold to him. She wanted not to care about anything he wished to say to her.
It was impossible.
Amidst the grass and shrubs and trees, his eyes turned green as he looked down on her. "You must not marry Lord Kellford."
She was taken aback. "I am astonished you even know of my betrothal, let alone assume the right to speak of it."
He averted his gaze for a moment. "I know I have no right. I tried to explain to your father, but he failed to appreciate the seriousness of the situation."
She made a scornful laugh. "I assure you, my father takes this impending marriage very seriously. He is delighted at the match. Who would not be? Kellford is such a charming man."
His eyes flashed. "Kellford's charm is illusory."
She lifted her chin. "Is it? Still, he meets my father's approval."
He riveted her with his gaze again. "I tried to tell him the man Kellford is. Your father would not listen, but you must."
A frisson of anxiety prickled her spine. With difficulty, she remained steady. "If you have something to tell me about Kellford, say it now and be done with it."
He glanced away. "Believe me. I never would have chosen to speak this to you--"
His words cut like a saber. He preferred to avoid her? As if she'd not realized that already. He'd avoided her for two years.
She folded her arms across her chest and pretended she did not feel like weeping. "Tell me, so you do not have to stay a moment longer than is tolerable."
His eyes darted back and flared with a heat she did not understand. "I will make it brief."
Mariel's patience wore thin. "Please do."
His eyes pinned her once more. "What do you know of the Marquis de Sade?"
Was he changing the subject? "I do not know the Marquis de Sade. What has he to do with Kellford?"
He shifted. "You would not know him. And I suppose no gently-bred young woman would have heard of himů"
"Then why mention him?" Why this roundaboutation? "Do you have a point to this?"
"I dislike having to speak of it," he snapped.
Enough. She turned to walk away.
He caught her by the arm and pulled her back. Their gazes met and Mariel felt as if every nerve in her body had been lit afire. She saw in his eyes that he, too, was affected by the touch.
He released her immediately. "The Marquis de Sade wrote many...books, which detailed scandalous acts, acts he is said to have engaged in himself--"
"Scandalous acts?" Where was this leading?
He nodded. "Between...between men and women." His eyes remained steady. "De Sade derived carnal pleasure from inflicting pain on women. It was his way of satisfying manly desires."
Mariel's cheeks burned. No man--not even Leo--had spoken to her of such matters before. "I do not understand."
He went on. "For some men the pleasure that should come...in the normal way...only comes if they cause the woman pain."
She'd heard that lovemaking--at least the first time--could be painful, but he didn't seem to be talking about that. "What pain?"
He did not waver. "Some men use whips. Some burn with hot pokers. Others merely use their fists." His cheek twitched. "Sometimes the woman is bound by ropes or chains. Sometimes she is deprived of food or water."
Her stomach roiled. "Why do you say this to me?"
His features twisted in pain. "Because Lord Kellford has boasted of such predilections. Because I have heard accounts about him. I have seen him use a whip--"
An icy wind swept through her. "That is the information you needed to give me?"
"Yes." His voice deepened. "That is it."
She glanced over at Penny whose expression reflected the horror Mariel felt inside. Penny had heard it all.
Mariel had known Kellford to be a greedy, calculating man hiding behind a veneer of charm. Now she discovered he was depraved as well, and that he would likely torture her. Hers would not merely be a wretched marriage, it would be a nightmare.
She turned away from Leo and started to walk away.
Again he seized her, this time holding her with both his hands, making her face him, leaning down so he was inches from her face. "You cannot marry him, Mariel. You cannot!"
He released her, and she backed away from him, shaking her head, anger rising inside her like molten lava.
It was easier to be angry, much easier than feeling terror and despair. She fed the anger, like one fed a funeral pyre.
Why had Leo saddled her with this appalling information? Did he think it a kind gesture? A worthy errand? Would he depart from this lovely park feeling all self-righteous and noble? Might he even pretend this atoned for disappearing from her life and breaking her heart?
He had walked away from her without a word, as if she'd been nothing to him and now he burdened her with this?
She felt ready to explode.
"Do you think you have helped me?" Her voice shook.
He seemed taken aback. "Yes, of course. You can cry off. It is not too late."
She gave him a scornful laugh. "I can cry off." Suddenly she advanced on him, coming so close she felt his breath on her face. "You understand nothing, Leo." Let him feel the impact of her wrath. "I have to marry Kellford. Do you hear me? I have no choice."
She swung around and strode off.
"What do you mean you have no choice?" he called after her. "Mariel!"
She did not answer. She did not stop. She did not look back, not even to see if Penny followed. She rushed down the path and out of the park. Hurrying across Park Lane, she did not stop until she reached the door to her town house.
Out of breath, she leaned her forehead against the door and waited for Penny to catch up.
To herself she said, "I have no choice, Leo. No choice at all."
End of the Excerpt. Like it?
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In A Not So Respectable Gentleman? what exactly is Mariel facing by being forced to marry Kellford, a sadistic fortune hunter? What was a Regency woman’s fate when she married?
She ceased to be a person.
“In law husband and wife become one person, and the husband is that person.” (18th century jurist, Sir William Blackstone)
A wife became her husband’s chattel without an identity of her own and without independence. All her property reverted to her husband upon marriage.
Upon marriage, all land belonging to the woman became under the husband’s control. All her belongings became his to dispose of as he wished. He had sole custody of any children from the marriage. The wife had no rights at all.
It was true that in return a husband assumed financial responsibility for his wife, although he was obligated to only provide enough to keep her out of the poor house. If he refused to support her, though, there was little the law could do to compel him. A wife could not sue her husband, because they were one person and one person cannot sue himself.
If a wife left her husband and lived separately from him, any property or money she acquired was still legally the husband’s. In the mid 1800s, Susannah Palmer was arrested and sent to prison for stabbing her husband with a knife. He had beaten her so often she finally left him, found employment and supported herself and her children. Mr. Palmer discovered her whereabouts and stole everything of value from her. Susannah was sent to prison, but her husband was not punished at all. Her belongings legally were his and wife-beating was not considered a criminal offense.
During the 1800s wife-beating was common, only raising comment if it became so brutal as to endanger the woman’s life. It was widely thought permissible for a husband to beat his wife as long as the stick was not “thicker than his thumb.” Even if the beating was brutal, most magistrates did not want to interfere in a domestic matter between a husband and his wife.
It was not until the late 1800s that the laws regarding wives and property were reformed, giving women the right to own and control property separate from their husbands. After 1878 a woman who could prove her husband committed aggravated assault on her, could apply for a separation order and financial support, but incidents of wife-beating still went unpunished most of the time..
If Mariel lived in the UK today, she might read that one in four women will be a victim of domestic violence in their lifetime, that one incidence of domestic violence is reported to the police every minute, that two women a week are killed by their current or former male partner.
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"...Blackmail, break-ins, clandestine meetings, disciples of the Marquis de Sade, attempted murder and two lovers too determined to do the right thing, all in a rich, darkly elegant Regency setting...there's no escaping the mystery and charm of A Not So Respectable Gentleman?"
— Kathy Altman Happy Ever After, USAToday
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4 1/2 Stars!
"...a multilayered story designed to ensnare the reader and not let go. Another excellent romance from Diane Gaston, A Not So Respectable Gentleman is engaging and hard to put down."
— Debby Cataromance
(read the whole review)
"a lovely romance with a bit of suspense and the power and strength of a family....Gaston's talents for evoking the era hold true to form...."
— Kathe Robin RTBook Reviews
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"What made this book such an enjoyable read was the quick pace of the story, with characters that were allowed to be intelligent and practical people, while also being flawed...the romance that Leo and Mariel find again in one another kept my attention from beginning to end, and I closed the book with a smile for their future together."
— Sara Anne Elliot Rakehell
(read the whole review)
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