To save her family, she’ll risk ruin
Daphne Davenport knows it is the height of folly to hope a suitor would save her and her family from genteel poverty. She is just going to have to do it herself. So she becomes Lady Spellwater, creator of perfumes the Ton can’t resist. It’s a heady game, more exciting than marriage, but she knows no one can ever find out the truth or the scandal will ruin them all.
But when a dashing earl appears, determined to catch a thief, she scents trouble.
To catch a thief, he’ll risk his empire
Hugh, Earl Mandeville, is hunting Lady Spellwater. Her most successful perfume uses a rare ingredient, one that is being stolen from his warehouses. Among a multitude of other things that threaten to topple the empire he is so carefully building.
But when Hugh finally tracks her down, he finds the beautiful and spirited Lady Spellwater as irresistible as her perfumes. But will their love survive if he discovers she is the very thief he has been chasing?
A Whiff of Scandal is a sweet regency romance.
In Which Miss Davenport is Most Improperly Pursued. Reading, Berkshire, 1810
Daphne Davenport stepped into Henderson’s Perfume Emporium and quietly closed the door behind her. The pale morning sunlight streamed through the stained-glass window above the door, leaving a watery mosaic on the hardwood floor like a benediction.
If ever she needed one, it was today.
The shop was narrow and deep with a wooden bench running down the left hand side. Behind the bench, shelves to the ceiling were filled with vials and bottles of perfume and oils. Cakes of soap were stacked on porcelain platters like the finest macarons. Layers of musk, civet, and orange blossom filled the air, but they barely teased her nose as they drifted through her heavy veil. It was difficult to see through it, but it did have its benefits—nobody would know the Davenports had been reduced to selling. Finding a noble suitor for her beautiful sister would never happen if anyone discovered that little secret.
Father had been born a gentleman and was the grandson of a viscount. What he’d done after that should be irrelevant.
She inhaled deeply, using the fragrance to embolden her. She only came to Reading once a month on market day, when she could ride with Mr. Mulloway in his cart. Today’s trip held more urgency than usual though, as the quarterly rent was due. If she didn’t sell her whole basket, their situation would be dire indeed. The thought came with a frisson of alarm.
Daphne waited for the proprietress to notice her, but she was at the back of the emporium, immersed in arranging her dark glass bottles into neat rows. Daphne softly cleared her throat.
Mrs. Henderson let out a girlish shriek and spun, one hand clasped to her breast. “My, you give a body a fright, especially garbed in all that grim black.”
Not a wonderful start. Daphne forced a smile, though it was unlikely Mrs Henderson would notice given the veil’s thickness. “What is Lady Spellwater without some mystery?”
Daphne lifted her basket onto the counter and then adjusted her bonnet, keeping her veil firmly in place. “In any case, you will forgive me when you smell my newest creation. This puts By a Lady in the shade.” Though she personally still loved her first perfume, as she had composed it especially for Celeste.
“Do show me, my dear.”
Though Mrs Henderson walked across to the counter in a friendly enough manner, Daphne couldn’t help but notice that she seemed ill at ease. She pulled the linen from over the basket to reveal rows of small round snuff tins.
“Snuff?” Mrs. Henderson raised a brow, her expression filled with doubt.
“No,” Daphne replied. “A solid perfume set in a tin. The fragrance is so exotic, it had to be imprisoned in beeswax to preserve its beauty. I call it Scandal. I have been working on it for months.” She had the notebooks full of failed versions to prove it. The current blend of rose, neroli, basil, and patchouli was number seventy-five.
Though her expression was still doubtful, Mrs. Henderson leaned forward to peer into the basket. “A solid, you say?”
Daphne nodded, trying to stop her shoulders sagging with relief. Perhaps her luck would hold, and she’d sell another basket full. “It’s unbreakable. Ladies can take it anywhere without fear of spillage.”
It was hard to keep the excitement from her voice and maintain the aloofness Mrs. Henderson expected from someone of the gentry. Nothing about this perfume made Daphne feel aloof. It was the most exciting perfume she’d ever created. To think she’d found the rare ingredient stored in the barn with all of Father’s mundane spices. It still made her shake her head in disbelief.
She picked out a tin and offered it to the older woman. If Mrs. Henderson purchased every tin, maybe she could afford to do more than pay the rent or buy food for the table. A trip to London, perhaps. An image of her sister dancing at a ball in a new gown had a smile tugging at her lips.
Mrs. Henderson sighed regretfully and pressed the tin back into Daphne’s hand. “It’s lovely, but I’m afraid I can no longer sell your goods.”
Daphne wrapped her fingers around the tin, gripping it tightly. “Cannot sell them? Why ever not? Don’t your customers see how superior, how complex, my fragrances are?”
Mrs. Henderson’s eyes darted over Daphne’s shoulder toward Broad Street. Then she wrung her hands and strode over to close the shade. “No, no, they still like it. That’s not the problem. It is the gentleman who paid me a visit.”
Her ominous tone made the hairs on Daphne’s arms prickle. “Surely many gentlemen pay you a visit. After all, it endears them to their wives.” Laugh, Mrs. Henderson. Please. Tell me this is all nothing but a bad jest.
Mrs. Henderson folded her arms over her ample bosom. “I’m sorry, Lady Spellwater,” she said, using Daphne’s business persona. “The gentleman who called was looking for you, and he was not the sort of man to whom one said no.”
Fear bloomed in Daphne’s stomach, and she gripped the basket handle to stop a shudder. “Did he say why he sought me? Perhaps he meant to pass on his compliments. Gentlemen do strange things when a scent catches their imagination.”
“I think not, madam. He asked me ever so nicely if I would cease stocking your products. The words ‘criminal’ and ‘fraudulent’ were bandied about. He said the ingredients you used were new and uniquely imported by his family’s enterprise.”
Alarm jolted through Daphne, right down to her toes. “I have never—and would never—steal my essences, Mrs Henderson.” She paused. “Did he say which ingredient he was referring to?”
The shopkeeper frowned. “It started with P…”
“Persian Essence,” Daphne murmured, feeling sick.
“Precisely!” Mrs. Henderson looked at Daphne through narrowed eyes. “He said their entire stock had been stolen before they could even distribute them.”
Dear Lord. She’d been using the various oils Father stored in their barn for almost two years now, and had only recently found the Persian Essence buried deep in a mountain of boxes. Though it was rare, she’d presumed it was simply old stock, just like all the other oils. It had seemed like a waste not to make it into perfume.
Of course, had Father been around, she would have simply asked him about it. But he had not visited them for months. He was too busy flitting between London and India, trying to find investors to fund a new cargo shipment, and had all but forgotten his daughters. The short letters they received with a small amount of money enclosed was barely enough to pay the rent.
It had been that way ever since his release from debtor’s prison. No matter how desperately he tried to regain the business he had lost, every attempt failed. And with each setback, the length between visits was longer. She loved him and wanted him home, but she now also couldn’t help wondering if, perhaps, in his desperation to avoid further time in debtor’s prison, he’d done the unthinkable.
“I’ve done nothing criminal,” Daphne said calmly, yanking the linen back over the top of the basket. “This gentleman cannot be the only supplier of Persian Essence.”
“Of course, my lady,” Mrs. Henderson said formally, clearly not believing a word. Daphne could explain that her father had been a spice and fragrance merchant too—but then Mrs. Henderson might tell the gentleman and lead him straight to her door. There weren’t that many spice merchants in England.
The store suddenly seemed very small, and the mixture of musk, civet, and orange blossom that had been so alluring when she arrived now made her stomach turn.
Someone sought to uncover her secret. Or worse still, lay the blame for her father’s supposed crimes at her door.
She unfurled her vice-like grip on the basket handles.
“What did you tell him, Mrs. Henderson?” Why did she keep staring at the door?
“Nothing, although what do I have to say?” She sounded thoughtful. “You’ve been careful not to disclose your true identity or direction. After almost two years, it’s slightly suspect, isn’t it?”
Daphne briefly closed her eyes. This was the beginning of the end. A man tracking her, and her best customer looking at her like she was the worst kind of scoundrel. She swung her basket around and made for the door. She had to escape this cloying little shop.
“No, it is not suspect,” Daphne said, lifting her chin. “It is merely the protection of my family’s reputation.”
Mrs. Henderson sighed. “Whatever your reasons, perhaps you should use the back exit. I have a bad feeling about the front door, and that’s all I can say to help you.”
Cold dread overcame her. Daphne rushed to the shop window and peeked through the shade. As she did, a coach stopped across the road, its black door swinging open. A tall gentleman leaped to the ground without waiting for the steps to lower. He turned, his face darkly handsome. Daphne inhaled sharply.
The memories that came flooding back at the sight of him were from a very different time and place. Memories of the Maharajah’s garden and sweltering monsoon days. Of Hugh smiling at her as he handed her mango from a platter, or lying under a banyan tree together, looking up at the glossy green canopy. Her almost psychic ability of knowing the moment he entered the room. Even a crowded ballroom. Her heart still ached from the intensity of how she’d loved him, surrounded by the kaleidoscope of scent and color that was her beloved India.
Her mind whirled. Did Hugh think she was stealing his product?
One thing was certain: the son of her father’s ex-business partner would not stop until he found her and ruined her family all over again. That was just what a Mandeville did, no matter how desperately one fell in love with them. And if the theft from the Mandevilles was on such a large scale that Hugh himself was involved, someone was going to pay dearly, but dashed if it would be her.
She snapped the shade shut and turned to Mrs. Henderson. “The back suddenly looks vastly appealing.” She almost laughed at the level of understatement as she swept past the counter and out the back door, slamming it so hard the locks rattled.
Damnation. Ladies did not slam doors. Daphne sighed. They also did not say damnation or scurry around selling their wares. And most assuredly, ladies did not have gentlemen making polite enquiries about them for thievery and fraud. But then, the longer she had to labor for her family’s survival, the more her gentility felt like a facade. A lady is as a lady does, after all.
* * *
Hugh, Lord Mandeville, threw open the front door of the shop, only to hear the back door slam.
“My thanks for the signal, Mrs. Henderson,” he said to the shopkeeper who had closed the blind as they agreed she would if Lady Spellwater arrived. He took chase, reaching the alley only to see a swirl of black already halfway down.
“Going so soon?” he said under his breath. “What a surprise.”
The faint hope she was innocent of using stolen goods faded. But at least he had done what Bow Street failed to do—find Lady Spellwater. Now he just had to catch her, and, by Jove, she was fast.
He ran, battling to keep his balance on the slippery, uneven flagstones. Blood pounded in his ears, silencing the sounds of the nearby marketplace. He paused briefly at the busy crossroad, looking right and left before catching sight of her walking swiftly toward the market. “Lose me among the potatoes, will you? I think not.”
He ran on. She must have heard him behind her, for her pace picked up. But he was gaining on her. Ten steps, five, then one. He reached out to grab her, then stopped mid-stretch, not wanting her to scream. Instead, he fell into step with her, each of his long strides measuring two of hers.
“Madam, if I could…”
She only came up to his chin but somehow increased her speed to outstrip him. In her wake, the basket she carried left the sweetest smell the decrepit alley had ever held. He slowed involuntarily, hoping to keep himself in the ribbon of beauty she trailed behind her.
“Madam,” he repeated, a little more firmly. “Lady Spellwater.” He felt like a fool uttering her self-proclaimed title.
She kept walking, lifting her basket high like a wicker shield. “I am not acquainted with you, sir. Please stop accosting me.”
Her voice was honey, pure, rich, and smooth. It pulled at his memory, but he couldn’t place who she was. The breathless quality of it might have been naturally hers or due to running. But it was unmistakably the voice of a lady, and unintentionally answered his first question about her identity. How he wished he could draw back her heavy veil and have all his answers.
“Come now, I mean you no harm. Just to ask a few simple questions.”
She stopped abruptly. “You mean me no harm?” She turned to look at him. Two long awkward moments passed in which she seemed to search his face through her veil, then shook her head, as if to clear it. “You have already harmed me. Mrs. Henderson was my best customer.”
They were spirited words, but they wavered, showing her fright. He took a deep breath, trying to look less intimidating. He knew the effect his stern features had on females—fear, trepidation, flight. All the things normally reserved for a monster rather than an expensively dressed earl.
“I could repair the damage if you answer my questions.” He offered her his arm to continue the walk down the alley. “In fact, I’ll buy your whole basket for the answer to just one.”
She stopped short again, ignoring the proffered arm. “All of it?”
He smiled reassuringly, although he had no idea how much she could see through that veil. It was worth the wad of bills he had in his pocket to get this answer. “One question, and not only will you sell all your perfume, but our paths need never cross again.” It caused a slight pang to know he would never see what was beneath the veil, the face to match the voice.
She seemed to consider it and tilted her head to one side. He got a fleeting glimpse of an elfin chin under the black netting. “Very well. Ask your question.” She loosened her grip on the basket, letting it sway at her knees. He’d won. Elation stabbed through him.
“Where did you source the Persian Essence?” He steadied his voice, to sound more calm and rational than he actually was. Crossing swords with the woman he’d searched months for was a heady thing.
She sighed, but it was shaky. They were so close he felt the air stir with her breath. “I did not buy it. It has been in my family for years. May I have my payment? Mrs. Henderson pays ten shillings.”
He ignored her request. “Then I think you have received stolen goods.” He picked a tin out of her basket, turning it over in his hand. He opened it, lifted it to his nose and with one inhale, knew her to be a master perfumer.
It was fruity and rich, like a hothouse garden, but the image it raised was not of flowers, but of the bedroom on a sultry summer afternoon. Of silk sheets warmed on a woman’s skin. Of a lazy smile and lazier love, languorous waves of pleasure…or something equally ridiculous. He rolled his eyes at his own folly.
Her knuckles had turned white from clenching the basket, and he could hear her breath coming in tiny, angry bursts. “As I said, the oils are old and belong to us. Not to you.”
He put the tin back in its neat hole beside the others. “So you say, but there is no way you could have had this perfume in your family for years. The process by which the jasmine is extracted has only recently been perfected.”
She pulled a piece of material over the tins with impatience. “Piffle. The Indians and Chinese have been doing this for centuries.”
“Not like this, they haven’t. This is India’s answer to France’s Jasmine de Grasse. A new variety, bigger, fruitier and picked only from midnight to dawn. I met the developer. He extracts the aroma using chemicals. It’s revolutionary. We are the first to import it.”
“‘We’ being who, sir?” She tapped her foot on the cobblestones, and he imagined her eyebrow rose in disdain. “You are not the only importer of oils in England.”
She clearly believed what she was saying, but that didn’t mean she was right. “Can I see your stock, then? If you have nothing to hide, it shouldn’t be a problem.” He shrugged.
“But I do have something to hide. My identity. We both know ladies cannot be in trade, and I most certainly am. I will not embarrass my family.”
So, she had siblings she felt responsible for. Young enough not to have her own children, then.
She backed away from him so he tried to hold on to her arm. “Listen—”
She jerked away, but he held on. Her arm was so slight his hand encompassed it. Too thin.
He heard a small ladylike gulp, and her whole body shuddered in fright. “I can tell you no more and beg you not to ask.”
What had this situation turned him into? He loosened his grip. “I’m not trying to hurt you or expose you. Just to warn you.”
It was impossible to see her expression or gauge what she was thinking, so he pushed on. “You are at risk in the worst possible way. If society would be severe on a genteel lady dabbling in trade, how do you think a lady with criminal connections would fare?”
“You would say that about me?” Her voice wavered with what might have been either anger or fear.
He shook his head. “Of course not. I’ve already promised not to expose you. But I will expose this thief and have justice done. You could easily be caught up in it.”
It was hard to say what convinced him she had nothing to do with the actual thefts. Probably the last remnant of hope that beneath all her deception she was an honest woman, and he didn’t have to continue stalking her. And her voice. Outrage like that was difficult to feign.
“I’m aware of the risks,” she said primly.
“I don’t think you are. What would happen to your family if you’re taken into custody by the Magistrate? It’s not worth ten shillings. Lay low for a while.”
She scoffed. “And what would you have me do? Rely on the charity of others? All the things I’ve been taught to do are useless in providing for my family. All except this.” She motioned to her basket.
“Would finding a husband be intolerable?” he said softly, to see what she would say.
“The worst possible outcome,” she bit off.
“How so?” He must have looked astonished because she chuckled.
“You assume I dislike plying my trade like this, but I love making perfume. I love smelling it on the wind as I walk in the park. Nothing could make me give this up.”
“Not even true love?” An innocent question, but it would tell him if she were married and had a partner in her industry.
She drew her shoulders back, but a hunch told him it was more pride than actual defiance. “This is my true love.”
The passion in her voice moved him. How lucky she was to have that love and be free to follow it. His days before the thefts seemed to consist of the same things. Club, dinner, ball, Club, dinner, ball. And the future would be more of the same.
His maternal grandfather had been a trade mogul, building up Oriental Spice and Fragrance to the heights of him buying his daughter into the Ton. But now, he was supposed to give all that up when it ran in his veins like liquid fire. But if he had to give it up, so did she.
Although she might be brave, he didn’t think she was stupid. “Can I convince you to stop making perfumes, even for a few weeks while I find my thief?”
She shook her head. Apparently, she was also reckless.
“No. I will continue. There are no stolen goods in my perfumes. I have nothing to fear.” She broke away from him. “You promised to let me go if I answered your question. I have answered far more than one.”
That voice. So deep and alluring. If he met Lady Spellwater on the dance floor, he’d know just by the strange spark that flashed between them. It was enough to make him look forward to going to balls again.
“So I did.” She was a lady and had his word as a gentleman. If that point of honor didn’t mean anything, then he was more lost than he thought.
He stepped back and swung his arm to motion her down the alley. “But I also promised to buy your stock.” He fished into his pocket and pulled out a handful of coins. “For your basket.”
She gave a throaty chuckle. “Oh, no, sir. Ten shillings buys you one tin, not the entire basket.” She did the calculation in her head. “Simple. Twenty tins by ten shillings. That will be ten pounds.” She held out her hand.
He laughed, the sound reverberating off the surrounding buildings. It sounded harsh and foreign, but maybe that was because he hadn’t done it in so long. The three years since Father’s death had been one long trial.
He pushed the coins into her outstretched hand. “I think not, Madam. You see, I have a strong feeling these belong to me, anyway. You’d best take what you can.”
He curled her gloved fingers over the coins, enclosing her small fist in his much bigger one. She drew in a ragged breath and pulled her hand away, dropping the coins into the basket and pulling out a tin.
“One tin is all you get,” she said defiantly. “Owning the ingredients doesn’t mean you can make them into perfume.” Without a curtsey, she took off like someone had lit a cracker beneath her skirts.
“Where can I find you?” he shouted after her. He could follow her, but did not want to cause her any more anguish than he already had.
“Glittering balls in London,” she replied airily.
He bowed. “Until next time, my lady,” he whispered, the tin like a hot coal in his hand.
She turned, lifting her hand in farewell, and he swore he saw the flash of a smile beneath the veil. Then she continued her glide down the alley, black cloak billowing out behind her.
It was funny, but by the end, he could swear she wasn’t afraid of him at all.