Wickedly dangerous Lance Bingham is fascinated by the newest debutante in town. It's not just her flirty smile that beguiles him--but the diamond necklace she daringly flaunts. His plan to steal back the treasured family heirloom has just become much more enticing!
Belle Ainsley's arrival in London has already caused somewhat of a stir. Tarnished with scandal, she knows her reputation is in tatters. But can falling from grace be so utterly ruinous when Lance seems more than willing to catch her?
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May 01, 2010
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Excerpt from Diamonds, Deception and the Debutante by Helen Dickson
'Miss Belle, I simply do not know what to do with you. Your grandmother is waiting for you in the dining room, and she doesn't like to be kept waiting. Now hurry. You look fine, you really do.'
Isabelle 'Belle' Ainsley spun round from the mirror, the bright green of her eyes flashing brilliantly as her temper rose. 'For heaven's sake, Daisy. I am nineteen years old and will not be hurried. And I will not look fine until I am satisfied with how I look.' She twisted back to the mirror, scowling petulantly at her hair, which, as usual, refused to be confined. Daisy had arranged it in twists and curls about her head, but a curl as wayward as the girl herself had sprung free and no matter how she tried to tuck it away, it defiantly sprang back.
Daisy shook her head in amusement, unperturbed by her new mistress's outburst of temper. 'We both know that could take all night and that would never do. You certainly have your grandmother's temper, but she's older and if I were you I wouldn't delay any longer or you'll feel the rough edge of her tongue.'
Belle groaned with exasperation and then in a fit of pique she grabbed a pair of scissors and cut off the offending curl. In a swirl of satin and lace she flounced across the room and out of the door, not deigning to look at Daisy's bemused face.
Belle's descent of the grand staircase was not in the least ladylike and brought a combination of smiles, raised eyebrows and frowns of concern from the footmen who paused in their duties to watch her. She was certainly a wondrous sight to behold, was Lady Isabelle. In the tomb-like silence of the Dowager Countess of Harworth's stately home, the arrival of her granddaughter from America ranked as an uproar and had not only the servants scratching their heads, but the countess as well. And now the countess was in high dudgeon over being kept waiting.
Entering the dining room, Belle steeled herself for the unpleasant scene that was bound to occur. Her grandmother rose stiffly from the chair where she was reclining, her hand gripping the gold knob of her cane. At seventy-two she was still a handsome woman with white hair, elegant, regal bearing, and the aloof, un-shakeable confidence and poise that comes from living a thoroughly privileged life. Despite the stiff dignity and rigid self-control that characterised her every gesture, she had known her share of grief, having outlived her husband and two sons.
'Good evening, Isabelle,' she said, looking with disapproval over her granddaughter's choice of dress, which had seen much wear and was not in the least the kind a young lady of breeding would wear in a respectable English drawing room. The sooner her dressmaker arrived to begin fitting her out for a new wardrobe the better. 'You are inordinately tardy. What do you have to say for yourself?'
'I'm so sorry, Grandmother. I did not mean to upset you. I simply could not decide which dress to wear. I chose this because it is such a pretty colour and looks well on me. You could have started dinner without me. You didn't have to wait.'
The Dowager gave her an icy look. 'In this house we dine together, Isabelle, and I do not like being kept waiting. How many times must I tell you that I demand punctuality at all times? Thank goodness we do not have guests. You have grieved cook, who has been trying unsuccessfully to keep our dinner warm and palatable.'
'Then I shall make a point of apologising to cook,' Belle said, unable to understand why her grandmother was making such a fuss about nothing. 'I have no wish to put anyone out. I could quite easily fetch my own food from the kitchen.'
'And that is another thing. You will not do work that is best left to the servants.' She sighed, shaking her head wearily. 'You have so much to learn I hardly know where to begin.'
'But I like to be kept busy,' Belle answered, smiling across at the agitated lady.
'I shall see that you are--with matters concerning your future role in life, although I realised from the start how difficult and unyielding is your nature.'
'Papa would doubtless have agreed with you. He ever despaired of me.' Thinking of her father, dead these two months, a lump appeared in Belle's throat and the lovely eyes were shadowed momentarily. 'I miss him very much.'
'As I do.' The faded blue eyes never wavered, but there was a hoarseness in the countess's voice that told Belle of her grandmother's inner grief over the death of her second son. 'It was his wish that you come to England, where you will be taught the finer points of being a lady--and I shall see that you do if I expire in the attempt.'
Belle swallowed down the lump in her throat. How difficult her life had suddenly become and how difficult the transition had been for her to leave her beloved Charleston and come to London. She missed it so much. Would she ever fit in here? she wondered. How she hated having to live by her grandmother's strict rules when her father had allowed her to roam as free as a bird back home. The task of learning to be the lady her grandmother intended her to become was both daunting and seemingly impossible.
She looked at her grandmother, her green eyes wide and vulnerable. 'I'm sure I must be a terrible disappointment to you, Grandmother, but I will try not to let you down. Despite what you think, I am only foolish, not stupid. I am ignorant of your ways, but I will learn.'
'Then you will have to work very hard.'
The countess knew she had her work cut out with her granddaughter. Her manners were unrefined and she knew nothing about genteel behaviour. She was a wild child, as wild as they come. At first sight they had regarded each other, two fiercely indomitable wills clashing in silence. That her granddaughter was proud and strong and followed her own rules was obvious, but the countess would not concede defeat.
Belle crossed to the long table and waited until Gosforth, the butler--who had a habit of appearing and disappearing seemingly from nowhere--had seated her grandmother properly, before pulling out her own chair and seating herself, which earned her another condemning frown from the elderly lady.
The dowager looked at Gosforth. 'We are ready to start, Gosforth, now my granddaughter has deigned to join me. I suppose we might as well see how cold the beef has grown.'
Belle sighed, folding her hands demurely in her lap. The evening was definitely off to a bad start. If only there was some distraction. Anything would be preferable to an evening at home alone with her grandmother, who would endeavour to teach her unsophisticated American granddaughter how young English ladies behaved. All Belle's attempts to try to curb her restlessness and be demure were unsuccessful.
Already--and unbeknown to her grandmother--on her daily rides across Hampstead Heath, Belle had garnered the favours of several curious local young beaux--one with raffish good looks and much sought after, apparently. His name was Carlton Robinson. On occasion he had watched for her when she rode out, and when she had managed to shake off her accompanying groom--who despaired of trying to keep up with her since she could ride like the wind with the devil on her tail--he had joined her.
Carlton Robinson had never met anyone quite like this American girl and he had soon turned to putty under the assault of her big green eyes and stunning looks. Out of boredom it was all a game to Belle, and when she had captured him completely, the game had soured and she had sent the young man packing--blissfully unaware of the consequences of her liaison with this particular gentleman.
She sighed, taking a large, unladylike gulp of her wine, already wishing the evening would end so she could escape to her room--and to make matters worse the beef was overdone.
The following morning, standing at her bedroom window overlooking the gardens, the countess watched her granddaughter as she cantered up the drive--hatless and astride, her long legs gripping her mount, her hair blowing loose in the wind, and having left the groom somewhere on the Heath.
That very morning one of the countess's acquaintances had hastened to inform her of a scandal that was beginning to unfold concerning Isabelle--a scandal that was entirely of Isabelle's making, if it was to be believed. The countess was incensed by her granddaughter's behaviour. Not in her wildest dreams had she imagined that the lovely, inexperienced young woman would form a liaison with a young man whose exploits were the talk of London as soon as she arrived. And Carlton Robinson! No man but he would dare, would have the temerity, the sheer effrontery to interfere with the granddaughter of the Dowager Countess of Harworth. She summoned Isabelle to the salon immediately.
Daisy had heard the gossip and told Belle she could expect no mercy from her grandmother. Belle's na?vety and inexperience had not prepared her for a young man of Carlton Robinson's reputation. Not to be made a fool of by an ignorant American girl, he had let his tongue loose to do its worst and turned the tables on Belle. He had laughingly told his friends that the American girl was an amusingly peculiar, pathetic little thing from the backwoods of America, and when she was launched, he had no intention of plying his suit.
An inexplicable premonition of dread mounted the closer Belle got to the salon. After listening to what her grandmother had to say, making no attempt to conceal her anger and disappointment, Belle was swamped with remorse and shame.
'Well? What have you to say for yourself?' the countess demanded of the wretched girl.
'I'm so sorry, Grandmother. It was nothing, please believe me. We--met when I was riding on the Heath. We only met three times. He--said he liked my company. I didn't like him, so I ended it. Daisy has told me that the odious man has said some dreadful, wicked things about me that simply are not true.'
'Carlton Robinson says objectionable things about people all the time,' the countess answered drily.
'I never meant for this to happen. I didn't know.'
'There's a great deal you don't know. A girl newly arrived from America--ignorant to our ways--he saw you as easy prey.' She shook her head wearily, blaming herself for allowing Isabelle too much freedom. 'I accept that you are ignorant of how things are done in England, Isabelle. Carlton Robinson is a conceited braggart and the most lascivious reprobate in town. Resentful of your rejection, he has tried to destroy your reputation in the most alarming manner--to make you a hopeless social outcast before you have even made your d?but.'
'I'm sorry, Grandmother,' Belle whispered brokenly, truly repentant. 'You risked a great deal taking me into your home. Little did you know you would be risking disgrace.' She looked at her grandmother, her eyes wide and vulnerable and shining with tears. 'I've a hideous disposition and I haven't a feminine accomplishment to my name. What is to be done?'
The countess's heart melted for the lovely, spirited, bewildered girl her younger son had borne, and in a moment her old loyal heart had her fighting in defence of her granddaughter, at whose door the blame had been unfairly laid. 'We shall do as the Ainsleys have always done, Isabelle,' she said on a gentler note, 'and weather the scandal. By the time you make your d?but, hopefully it will have blown over.'
And so the Dowager Countess of Harworth began to shape the artless, unsophisticated girl from America into a respectable English young lady. Isabelle hadn't a grain of sense or propriety in her, but her determination not to be restricted or confined had to be curbed. She knew nothing of fashion and cared even less, but Isabelle had been well tutored in most subjects. She spoke perfect French, read Latin and Greek, and she had a good head for numbers.
Miss Bertram, a woman of unimpeachable character, was to arrive today to begin instructing her on the refinements of etiquette. No one would dare to question the acceptability and character of any young lady in her charge. The Season would begin in just a few short weeks. Hopefully it would be enough time for Isabelle to learn everything she needed to know to make a full-fledged d?but and to outfit her for the full Season. Until then the countess would begin by taking her to the theatre, where she could be seen but not approached, but apart from that, she must be kept locked away from everyone.
Her grandmother's house, situated close to Hamp-stead Heath, was unlike anything Belle had imagined. She had been mesmerised by its splendour--imposing without being austere. This was where her grandmother lived when she came to London, preferring the relative peace and quiet of living just outside the city, where the air was cleaner. The ancestral home, Harworth Hall, was in a place called Wiltshire.
On her arrival in England, at first Belle had objected and fought against all her grandmother's efforts to make her conform. Her grandmother was hard to please, overbearing and possessive, whereas Belle was a free spirit and used to doing as she wished, and she wasn't ready to be buried alive by protocol and the traditional English customs. But now her 'hysterics', as her grandmother called it, had cooled to an acceptance of her situation and a steely determination. Admitting her lack of knowledge about English protocol, Belle was sensitive enough to realise that she was lacking in certain social skills--and she was her own harshest critic. She accepted that her grandmother was the only family she had, and, like it or not, this was now her home, so she had best conform and make the best of it.
Miss Bertram had the formidable task of teaching her social graces, and under her relentless and exacting tutelage, Belle began to settle down and worked diligently to learn anything that might help her win favour in her grandmother's eyes.
Madame Hamelin, her grandmother's personal dressmaker, arrived, accompanied by two seamstresses to fit her for an extensive wardrobe, and Madame Hamelin was full of praise for the beautiful American girl, complimenting her on her natural grace and excellent posture. Belle allowed herself to be pushed, prodded and poked and scolded if she did not stand still for the fittings, and sometimes praised--for she was excited, and what girl would not be?--the centre of attention, admired and exclaimed over.
Next came the dancing instructor, who had her whirling around the room to the imaginary strains of a waltz and to the countess's relief announced that her granddaughter had a natural ability and was far from hopeless.