Lively St. Lemeston, West Sussex
Phoebe sat at the foot of her bed, her elbows propped on the deal table she'd placed under the window. She was supposed to be writing her next Improving Tale for Young People. But the shingled wall and gabled roof of Mrs. Humphrey's boarding house across the way were so much more absorbing than the tragic tale of poor Ann, who had been got with child by a faithless young laird and was now starving in a ditch.
If Phoebe strained, she could even see a sliver of street two stories below.
The problem was that she couldn't quite decide what would happen to Ann next. Tradition dictated that either the girl die there, or that her patient suffering inspire the young laird to reform and carry her off to a church, but...that was so boring. Every Improving Tale-teller in England had already written it. It had been old when Richardson did it seventy years ago.
But she couldn't afford to waste this precious time in daydreams. It was washing day, and Sukey, the maid she and her landlady shared with Mrs. Humphrey, would soon be back from her shopping to help. Then tomorrow Phoebe had to piece her quilt for the Society for Bettering the Condition of the Poor's auction in December, and what with one thing and another, she wouldn't have any more time to write until Tuesday. She had promised this story to the editor of the Girl's Companion in time for typesetting three weeks from now.
There were footsteps on the stairs and a knock at her door. I do not feel relieved, she thought firmly. Standing and crossing into her sitting room, she opened the door to discover--
"Mr. Gilchrist." She felt much less relieved.
The dapper Tory election agent stood at the top of the narrow spiral of stairs leading to her attic. A few drops of rain glistened in his sleek brown hair, on his broadcloth shoulders, and on the petals of the pink-and-white carnation--the colors of the local Tory party--in his buttonhole.
Drat. If it was raining, washing would have to be put off until she had Sukey again next Friday. And she'd have to keep a careful eye on the bucket under the leak in her roof to make sure it didn't overflow.
"Ah, you know of me," he said with an oily smile. "Pleased to make your acquaintance, Mrs. Sparks."
Oh, his smile is not oily. Prejudice combined with the urge to narrate is a terrible thing. She smiled back. "And I'm pleased to make yours. But I should warn you, I'm Orange-and-Purple, and so are my voting friends." There was a general election on in England to choose a new Parliament. While many districts could go decades with the same old MPs, the Lively St. Lemeston seats always seemed to be hotly contested.
He tilted his head. "Your father and your husband were Whigs. But from what I hear, you're an independent woman. Decide for yourself." His expression turned rueful. He couldn't be more than twenty. "Besides, it's starting to rain and I'd rather not go outside again just yet."
She sighed. He was good at this. "May I offer you some tea?"
"I'd love some."
Maybe his smile was oily after all. Phoebe went to take the kettle from the fire, but she didn't bring out the cheese rolls from the cupboard. They cost a penny each, and she wanted them for herself.
Mr. Gilchrist waited patiently while she topped off the teapot with hot water. She didn't add any tea. A second steeping was good enough for him.
"I know you're a busy and practical woman, so I'll come straight to the point," he said as she poured. "Thank you, I take it black." A politic choice, visiting a poor widow. "Under the Lively St. Lemeston charter, every freeman of the town has the right to vote for up to two candidates in an election."
"I know that, Mr. Gilchrist." Men always wanted to explain things, didn't they?
"Also under the Lively St. Lemeston charter," he continued, clearly having no intention of modifying his planned oration, "the eldest daughter of a freeman who died without sons can make her husband a freeman."
Phoebe tapped her foot on the floor. "My husband is dead," she pointed out, since apparently they were telling each other things they both already knew.
The young man took a sip of tea. He had an eye for a dramatic pause, anyway; she had to give him credit for that. "You could marry again."
She blinked. "What?"
"Mr. Dromgoole, our candidate, would be happy to assist in finding any prospective spouse a lucrative place in his chosen profession." His smile didn't falter. Definitely oily.
"You think I'm going to get married just to get you extra votes? The polls are in a month!" She set her still-empty teacup back on the table with a rattle.
"Allow me." He put a small lump of sugar into the cup, poured it half full of tea, and then filled it almost to the brim with milk.
"You found out how I like my tea?" she asked incredulously.
There was a hint of boyish smugness in his smile now. "I know how you like your men, too. If you'll just meet my nominee--"
She stood. "How dare you? Get out of my house."
It wasn't her house, though. It was her two cramped attic rooms. His eyes drifted for a moment, letting that sink in, reminding her of how much more she could have if she married.
He might know how she liked her tea, but he didn't know a thing about her if he thought she'd be happier in a fine house that belonged to her husband. These two rooms were hers.
He rose. "I'll give you a few days to think it over. A message at the Drunk St. Leonard will always reach me."
She went to the door and jerked it open. "Even love wouldn't convince me to marry again. An election certainly won't." She'd always had a tendency to bend the truth in favor of a neat bit of dialogue. But love wouldn't convince me to marry again unless I were sure it wouldn't become a bickering, resentful mess like the first time just didn't sound the same.
Mr. Gilchrist shook his head mournfully and bounded down the stairs. He passed out of sight--and there was a squawk and the sound of bouncing fruit. "I'm dreadfully sorry," he said, not sounding very sorry.
Phoebe started down to help Sukey collect the groceries, turning the corner just in time to see the girl pocket something. "Pardon me, did you just bribe my maid?"
"It's not a bribe." Mr. Gilchrist tossed a couple of apples back in the basket with unerring aim. "It's damages for the fruit."
She considered throwing an apple at him as he disappeared around the next bend, but even in October the fruit wasn't cheap enough to justify it. "The Orange-and-Purples would never stoop this low," she shouted after him instead.
"Don't count on it," Mr. Gilchrist called back.
"I hope he's right," Sukey said cheerily. "I could use another shilling."
Nick Dymond awoke to pain in his leg and someone knocking imperiously at the door to his rooms. Moving carefully, he rolled over and buried his head under his pillow, blocking out both the knocking and the unpleasant clamor of London's early-morning traffic. Toogood would take care of it.
"I'm sorry, my lady, Mr. Dymond is not in," he heard his valet saying in the next room.
My lady. Nick had an ugly presentiment even before he heard his mother's voice. "That would be too good to be true," said Lady Tassell. "He hasn't gone out more than half-a-dozen times in the last two months. Kindly remove yourself from my path."
Toogood was valiant--or at any rate, the better part of valiant. Lady Tassell's skirts rustled as she swept in, the click of her boots softening when she stepped onto Nick's Cuenca carpet.
Nick groaned and swung himself gingerly upright. The pain was always at its worst in the morning. "Toogood hates puns on his name, you know that," he called, massaging the tendons in his left thigh. Even after six months, his fingers felt awkward on the scar.
"Lying abed at two in the afternoon, I knew it," his mother said, pushing open the door to his room. So, not the morning then. "Get up and put on a banyan or something. I have a task for you."
Nick took up the walking stick that leaned against his night table and steeled himself for what he knew was coming--not the pain, but his mother's reaction to it. He stood with a lurch.
She was such a damn good liar. Why didn't he rate the effort? When he'd first come back from the Peninsula, she'd spent every day with him, bringing him hothouse fruit and restorative broths, criticizing his appearance, manners and arrangements for his own comfort, and dragging him about with her to meetings, dinners and planning sessions.
He'd been too weak and unhappy to resist, but he'd hated the stares, the looks of pity and hero-worship, the questions about the battle.
And he'd hated how every damn step he took, she stiffened and pressed her lips together as if she couldn't bear it. As if she couldn't bear to be near him.
She'd expected him to--he didn't know what she'd expected. To suddenly enjoy talking about elections? To stop limping? To be happy? But after a month, when he still wasn't the son she wanted, she'd given up and left him alone.
He'd actually, contrarily, been disappointed.
Ordinarily he took pains to limp as little as possible, not to let his expression betray the tiny jolts of pain. Now he didn't bother, crossing to the pitcher and basin with uneven steps. He set down his cane and braced himself on the washstand with both hands for a moment, his breath harsh and short in his ears. He met his mother's eyes in the mirror.
Her face was white and set.
It was not much to his credit that he strove never to intrude his new lameness on anyone's notice, except with the one person who most hated to see him in pain.
He breathed in and out and recited Childe Harold's Pilgrimage to himself.
For his was not that open, artless soul
That feels relief by bidding sorrow flow...
As he focused on the familiar words, everything faded: his resentment, the pain in his leg, his morning hunger and the smell of Toogood grilling smoked herrings and brown bread in the next room. He splashed water on his face with one hand. "Well? What's the task?"
She shook out her skirts. "Your brother Tony is in real danger of losing the Lively St. Lemeston election. I can't go myself, I'm working on Stephen's county campaign in Chichester."
Poor Tony, still trying to please Mother. Nick took his dressing gown from where it was thrown over the back of a chair and wrapped it around himself. "I've told you a thousand times I've no interest in politics." Even as a child, he'd known it was all sound and fury, signifying nothing. Politics was his mother expecting him to pretend they were a happy family on public days at Tassell Hall, when they entertained the district's tenantry and voters.
Firstborn, serious-minded Stephen and attention-craving Tony, the baby of the family, had taken to it like fish to water. Maybe for them, it had been a happy family.
Nick had chosen the army almost on a whim. But once in the Peninsula, the rough-and-ready life had quickly felt like home. There was no pretense in a long march or a battle or a wet game of cards round a smoking fire. Life was clear and straightforward and it meant something.
Nick's mother gave him a weary smile. "If I'd insisted you go into Parliament four years ago, instead of buying you a pair of colors, you'd still be walking."
Nick wished he were back in bed. "I walk. You just saw me walk."
"When you're not sulking in here."
She arched a brow. "Mmm. You're right, sulking was the wrong word. How about 'moping'? Would you prefer 'brooding'? You returned from Spain three months ago. I hoped you simply needed time, but you've barely left your rooms since I stopped making you. They smell, Nick."
"They do not--"
She cut him off with an exasperated wave of her hand. "I don't have time for this argument right now." She never had time for anything during an election. Nick had been born in the midst of the historic general election of 1784, when the Tories seized control of the House of Commons for good and all; she'd left him with the wet-nurse and returned to her study until the last poll closed a month later.
Nick sometimes thought she blamed the hours she'd spent birthing him for the Whigs' ensuing twenty-eight years in Opposition.
"I have a simple match I need you to make for me," she said. "No politicking required."
Nick had remained standing as long as he could, and that last comment intrigued him. He wasn't quite ready to show his mother the door. First point for Lady Tassell. "Please sit." He was careful not to sound grudging, so he wouldn't have to accord her another point for oversetting him. He eased himself down onto the edge of the bed.
She sat with a regal sweep of skirts, smiling. In that moment she actually looked happy with him. He hated how warm it made him feel. "I knew that would get your attention," she said smugly. "There is a certain young woman in Lively St. Lemeston who could make her husband a voter, if she had one. Alas, she is a widow."
"A recent widow?"
His mother waved her hand. "Oh, a couple of years. Plenty of time to get over her grief. It wasn't a happy marriage, by all accounts. You remember Will Sparks, don't you?"
Nick had stopped spending Christmases in Lively St. Lemeston with his family years ago. He remembered the name but not the face. "The newspaper editor."
She gave him that pleased look again. "You did read my letters."
He shrugged, not eager to admit either that he'd read them only sometimes and then with variable thoroughness, or that he'd been grateful to get them. "Is she pretty?"
She sniffed. "You're always such a man, Nicky. Would you refuse to go if she weren't?"
Just like that, he'd managed to say the wrong thing. And just like that, she assumed he'd fall in with her plans. "I'm not going either way."
He'd known her his whole life. He knew that slight, still pause meant he'd hurt her feelings. But her face didn't change a whit. "I thought you'd say as much," she said after a moment. "Every cloud has a silver lining. Your father owes me a hundred pounds."
He blinked. "You bet him I wouldn't go?"
"I bet him you couldn't do it at all, when he suggested you for the job. But I think he'll probably agree this means I win."
She had never had the slightest bit of faith in him. Nick tried not to let it sting. Why should she have? It was only in the army that he had found something worth working for, worth fighting for. He'd been useful there, even valuable. He'd become someone to be relied on.
Now he was useless again. His wounded leg, as minor an injury as it was in the grand scheme of things, couldn't stand up to forced marches or sleeping on cold, sodden ground.
He stood, lurching just a shade more than necessary. "Enjoy your winnings."
Her jaw clenched. She had wanted a fight.
He waited, meeting her eyes blankly. After long moments, she rose in an agitated flurry of ruffles and petticoats. "Very well. But your allowance is stopped as of this moment."
"If you won't contribute to this family, I see no reason why this family should contribute to you. Find someone else to pay for your calf-bound editions of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage and whatever it is you've been eating."
He had no other source of income, and no means of procuring one. How was he even to begin looking? Asking hat in hand for employment from a succession of men who would see his leg and pity him--all those eyes on him--the idea was anathema.
Anger and hurt were a lead weight on his tongue. His thoughts slowed. He'd been like this since he was a boy, going silent and blank when he should have flown into a fine rage. "Toogood is an excellent cook," he said finally.
She made a violent, frustrated movement.
He tried again. "Mother, you can't--"
"I think you'll find that I can," she said tightly. "Just behave like a dutiful son for once in your life and go to Lively St. Lemeston. Prove me wrong. I'd be overjoyed to lose this bet." She sounded tired, suddenly. She looked tired, the wrinkles around her eyes and mouth deepening.
He'd seen her tired before, of course, giddy and incoherent from lack of sleep before important votes in the Commons, or snappish and sore-throated from sixteen hours canvassing. But he'd never seen her look faded. She'd aged while he was away.
He drew in a deep breath, reminding himself that Byron did it. He went out every day with his deformed foot, and he let them stare. He went to Almack's in knee breeches with that skinny leg of his, and to the devil with them all. If Byron could do that with half of London breathing down his neck, Nick could manage Lively St. Lemeston.
He had survived the siege of Badajoz. This was nothing. "I'll go," he said. "But I'm making you a bet too."
"If I get that woman married off, you can never wince when you look at me again."
Her lips parted, her eyes filling with tears. "Oh, Nicky, I--"
"Don't apologize. Just make the bet."
She held out her hand. It was older than he remembered, the veins more prominent. But when he shook it, her smile made her look young. "The coach will take you this afternoon. And see if you can keep Tony away from women while you're there, won't you?"
He would get this match made by hook or by crook. And then he'd walk away and--
His imagination failed. It didn't matter. One step at a time, he told himself, just as he had in hospital when every step was a small, blessedly finite agony. One step at a time from here to the door, and we'll worry about what's on the other side when we get there.
Nick leaned on his walking stick, giving himself a few moments to catch his breath. Of course the widow lived at the top of two flights of very steep, very twisty stairs.
After six hours of jouncing about on bad roads the day before, followed by sleeping in an unfamiliar bed in damp weather, his leg had already been protesting. He'd waited until the sun came out this afternoon, and still his leg whined all the way from the Lost Bell, Tony's inn headquarters: past the Market Cross and down the quaint streets, up the uneven garden path to the widow's lodgings, past hedges and bushes strewn with drying clothes and past the open kitchen door, and into the house. Now, after the stairs, it shouted at him that it wanted to go home and sleep.
You and I both, leg. He rapped on the low attic door. There was no answer. After half a minute dragged by, he tried again. No answer. The wretched woman wasn't home. The staircase yawned behind him like a drab, dirty descent into Hell.
Men had probably journeyed into Hell with more grace and less cursing, but eventually Nick found himself back out on the threshold. He closed the door and leaned against it. The maids at their washing in the kitchen couldn't see him from this angle. He shut his eyes and silently recited Byron until the ache in his leg receded.
"Are you ill, sir?"
He started upright. The plumper of the two maids stood before him. The water from the washing had splashed all down her front, and it was chilly enough that the points of her nipples showed even through several layers of wet cloth. There was so much of her, breasts and hips and thighs and--
She cleared her throat loudly. "Sir?"
He hurriedly raised his eyes to her face. It was a lovely face, heart-shaped with great dark eyes, finely arched brows, and an annoyed rosebud mouth. The tips of her thick dark hair curled wetly.
"Yes, I must have eaten something that disagreed with me," he said. "I'm Mr. Dymond, and I'm looking for Mrs. Sparks. Do you know if she'll be in later?"
The maid's eyes widened, and she tried to dry her hands on her skirts. "Maybe," she hedged. "What did you want to speak to her about? Wait a moment, did you say Mr. Dymond? But I've met him, he's--"
"I'm sorry, I should have said Mr. Nicholas Dymond. My brother is the candidate."
Her eyes narrowed. "You know Mr. Sparks is dead, don't you? He can't vote." Her Sussex accent wasn't as strong as many of the folk he'd spoken to here, but a warm burr coated her words like a honey glaze.
It would behoove him to win her over for the sake of Mrs. Sparks's vote, but he didn't quite know how. Flirting with a voter's wife was safe; she knew you didn't mean it. A maid might think you were trying to bed her. His mother had impressed upon them all from a very early age the folly of womanizing during an election.
How would Lady Tassell handle this? A smile, flattery and a bribe, no doubt. She had small armies of servant spies across England, and they all thought her a paragon of kind generosity.
He smiled at the maid. Her hands twisted in her skirts. "I do know," he said reassuringly. "But there's nothing to stop her taking another, is there? If you could tell me of anyone she might be sweet on, I'd be very grateful. You must know all the news hereabouts." He pulled a shilling out of his pocket and pressed it into one nervous hand.
Her fingers were cold and damp. Even with the sun finally out, it was a damnable day for washing.
The other maid, holding a linen shift trimmed with faded green bows and red rosettes, appeared at her elbow and plucked the shilling from her fingers. "That's mine, I believe. And Mrs. Sparks isn't sweet on anyone."
"Sukey!" The maid flushed, then turned on him, eyes flashing. "I thought better of the Orange-and-Purples, I really did. I'm not getting married for your dratted election, so you can stop flirting with all the servants in the vicinity."
Sukey winked at him. "Oh, don't stop on my account."
Nick stifled a groan. He wasn't cut out for this. He couldn't manage even the simplest bit of politic dealing. "Mrs. Sparks, I take it."
"I loved everything about Sweet Disorder: the freshness of the politically oriented plot, the clear-eyed affection with which Lerner sketches a vibrant small-town Regency community, and most of all, the steamy, deeply-felt romance between two wary people who have everything to lose by falling in love." —Cecilia Grant, author of A Lady Awakened
"I thought of some of my favorite historical romance authors as I read this book—authors like Courtney Milan, Judith Ivory, and Cecilia Grant—because of the good writing, the realness of the characters, and their psychological depth as well." Recommended Read, A-. —Janine, Dear Author. Read full review here.
"A lovely read, enjoyable and engaging and cleverly drawn." Recommended Read, B+. —Kaetrin, Dear Author. Read full review here.
"Lerner weaves an enchanting tale. The repartee between Nick and Phoebe is the icing." —Donna M. Brown, Romantic Times Book Reviews. Read the full review here.
"This rich and memorable Regency romance brings its setting and characters perfectly to life." —Publishers Weekly (starred review). Read the full review here.
"Admirable, complex, immensely likable protagonists are complemented by a diverse cast of beautifully realized secondary characters…in a smart, literate, Regency-era tale that bypasses general ton glitter for village drama (and a dash of scandal) and drops readers into a refreshing, insightful mix of family dilemmas, business and political machinations, and social class differences that won’t disappoint." —Library Journal (starred review). Read full review here.
"I've read thousands of love scenes, and very few now really give me a sense of anticipation. But this one did, leaving me breathless at Nick and Phoebe's stark honesty and need." —Cheryl Sneed, Heroes and Heartbreakers. Read full review here.
"When it comes to creating real characters, Rose Lerner is the master." —Melanie at bookworm2bookworm. Read full review here.
"Rose Lerner once again provides a thoroughly entertaining and unerringly insightful romance rife with fascinating historical detail and unconventional situations[...]Absolutely flawless." A+ —Elizabeth Vail at Gossamer Obsessions. Read full review here.
"[A]s soon as I finished this book, I wanted to start all over again...Rose Lerner doesn’t shy away from the gritty, almost unfair life Phoebe lives, but she quietly weaves in a warm romance and by the end, you are smiling." B+ —Mandi at SmexyBooks. Read full review here.
"If you like different historicals, a unique heroine and a truly wonderful community (complete with showing the good sides AND the bad sides) I recommend this book." —Beth Mathews. Read full review here.
"[A] wonderful portrait of small-town life in early nineteenth century England[...T]he characterisation of the two principals is superb. Nick and Phoebe are complicated, flawed and very real characters." A-, Desert Isle Keeper. —Caz for All About Romance. Read full review here.
"This was a delight from start to finish[...]The best historical romance I’ve read this year, easily." —Ros Clarke. Read full recommendation here.