Prince Charming

By: Julie Garwood
Chapter 1

Virtue is bold, and goodness never fearful.

—William Shakespeare,

Measure for Measure

London, England, 1868

The vultures were gathering in the vestibule. The salon was already filled to capacity, as was the dining room and the library above. More of the black-clad predators lined the curved staircase. Every now and then two or three would bob their heads in unison as they gulped from their glasses of champagne. They were watchful, expectant, hopeful. They were also vile and disgusting.

They were the relatives.

Quite a few friends of the earl of Havensmound were in attendance as well. They were there to show their support and their compassion over the unfortunate tragedy about to take place.

The celebration would come later.

For a brief spell, everyone tried to behave in a dignified manner befitting the solemn occasion. Liquor soon loosened both their thoughts and their smiles, however, and it wasn't long before outright laughter could be heard above the clinking of their crystal glasses.

The matriarch was finally dying. There had been two false alarms in the past year, but many believed this third attack would turn out to be the charm. She was simply too damned ancient to keep on disappointing everyone. Why, she was already past sixty.

Lady Esther Stapleton had spent her life accumulating her fortune, and it was high time the old girl died so her relatives could start spending it. She was, after all, reported to be one of the richest women in England. Her only surviving son was also reported to be one of the poorest. It wasn't right, or so his sympathetic creditors announced whenever the lecherous earl was within earshot. Malcolm was the earl of Havensmound, for God's sake, and should have been allowed to spend as much as he wanted, whenever he wanted. Granted, the man was a blatant squanderer, and a rake as well, whose sexual appetite ran to the very young, but those flaws weren't frowned upon by the moneylenders. Quite the opposite in fact. While the more respectable bankers had long ago refused to loan the licentious earl any more money, the street corner lenders were more than happy to accommodate the man. They were jubilant. They thoroughly enjoyed their client's debauchery. Each had charged an exorbitant amount of interest to shovel the earl out of his latest gambling fiasco to say nothing of the staggering amount they'd had to fork over to silence the parents of the young ladies their client had seduced and then discarded. The debts had piled up all right, but the patient creditors were soon going to be richly rewarded.

Or so they all believed.

Thomas, the ailing butler's young assistant, pushed yet another creditor out the entrance, then took great delight in slamming the door shut. He was appalled by their behavior. He was certain they knew better. They just didn't care.

Thomas had lived in the household since he was twelve, and in all that while, he didn't believe he'd ever seen anything as shameful as this. His dear mistress was above the stairs, struggling to hold on until all her affairs had been properly settled and her favored granddaughter, Taylor, arrived to say her farewell, while down below, the dying woman's son was holding court as pretty as you please, laughing and carrying on like the cad that he was. His daughter, Jane, clung to his side, a smug expression on her face. Thomas guessed the gloating look was due to the fact that she knew her father would share his wealth with her.

Two rotten peas in the same pod, Thomas thought to himself. Oh, yes, father and daughter were very alike in both character and appetite. The butler didn't feel he was being disloyal to his mistress because he harbored such dark opinions about her relatives. She felt the same way. Why, on several occasions, he'd heard Lady Esther refer to Jane as a viper. She was that, all right. Thomas secretly called her much worse. She was a vicious young woman, full of clever plots, and it seemed to him that the only time he ever saw her smile was after she had deliberately crushed someone's feelings. It was said by those in the know that Jane ruled the upper crust with a malicious hand and that most of the younger men and women just stepping into their places in society were actually afraid of her, although they knew better than to admit it. Thomas didn't know if the gossip was true or not, but one thing was certain in his mind. Jane was a destroyer of dreams.

She'd gone too far this time, however, for she'd dared to attack that which Lady Esther most valued. She'd tried to destroy Lady Taylor.

Thomas let out a loud grunt of satisfaction. Very soon now, Jane and her disreputable father would be made to realize the ramifications of their treacherous deeds.

Pear Lady Esther had been too occupied with ill health and family losses to notice what was going on. Since the day Taylor's older sister, Marian, had taken her twin babies to live in Boston, Lady Esther had begun her decline. She'd been failing ever since. Thomas believed the only reason she hadn't completely given up was because she was determined to see the child she'd raised as her own daughter married and settled first.

Taylor's wedding had been canceled, thanks to Jane's interference. A bit of good came out of the godawful humiliation, however. Lady Esther finally had her eyes opened. She used to be a forgiving woman until this latest outrage. Now she was just plain vindictive.