Wedded in Scandal

(The first book in the Bridal Favors series)

A novel by Jade Lee


Thanks go to so many people for this book: Kate Seaver, amazing editor; Pamela Harty, amazing agent; and David Grill, amazing husband and hero.

Plus thanks to my amazing friends and supporters: Elizabeth Hoyt, Cindy Dees, and Deb Miller.

But for this book and this series, Kim Castillo is the most brilliant, because the first germ of an idea came from her.

Thank you all!

Chapter 1

“Yer wants to go in there? But, er, why?”

Robert Percy, Viscount Redhill, ignored the mine manager and began stripping off his coat and gloves. They were in the shack outside a coal mine that his father had purchased in a fit of drunken entrepreneurship. Sadly, the earl didn’t fall down in his cups like a normal person. No, instead he bought businesses, which Robert then had to save. And given that no one in his family knew anything about coal mining, this was going to be a challenge indeed.

But the first step in a new venture—or after one of his father’s drinking binges—was to inspect the new property. So he was determined to go down into the hellhole of a mine despite Mr. Hutchins’s objections. He’d already pulled off his coat and folded it neatly to the side, but after one glance outside at the filthy employees all lined up near the mine entrance, he stripped off his waistcoat as well. He would have taken off his fine lawn shirt, but he couldn’t greet his new employees half naked.

“It’s mighty dark down there,” continued Mr. Hutchins, his full whiskers twitching in agitation. Truly, the long nose and scrunched face made the man resemble a rat in some rather unfortunate ways. A rat who obviously did not like leaving his nest.

“Last I recall, the dark never hurt anybody.”

“That’s ’cause ‘anybody’ ain’t been down in the mines,” Mr. Hutchins groused. Then he sighed heavily and pulled his rather impressive bulk out of his chair. “I think yer daft, milord, but if yer insisting, I’ll have Charlie show you about.”

Robert paused, his gaze narrowing down to a few pertinent details. First of all was Mr. Hutchins’s girth. His waist was just the right size if he were a draft horse. Second, everything in here was filthy, but not with coal dust. No, he could barely breathe for the stink of cigar. And third, Mr. Hutchins had a telltale wheeze when he moved even around this small office.

“When was the last time you were down in the mines, Mr. Hutchins?” he asked.

“Wot? Why jest last week, I’m sure. But it’s a filthy place and beastly hot.”

“I believe that a manager should see what he manages, don’t you, Mr. Hutchins?”

“Oh, I do, I do!” he said as he wiped the sweat from his balding pate. “Go down there every year to inspect the new finds. Now, if you wish to see something most interesting, I can take you to inspect our carts. They’re in a terrible way, milord—”

“I will definitely inspect them, Mr. Hutchins. After I see the mine.” And so saying, Robert left the filthy mine office to head toward the black cave hole of an entrance. All around him, scrawny men, women, and children tugged their forelock or curtsied as he passed. He smiled at each of them, feeling the bizarre echo of when he’d last traveled to his family’s Scotland estate. All the servants had lined up then as well to greet the young master of the estate. But those people had been well fed and clean. These people had coal dust encrusted in their very skin and a haunted, hollow look to their eyes.

Bloody hell, what was his father thinking buying such a place? Even half drunk, his father could have seen how very sick these people were. But his father had never actually inspected his new purchase. No, he left that to Robert to perform after all the papers had been signed.

Mr. Hutchins made his way to his side, his wheezing growing louder as they crossed the rocky ground. “You sure ye don’t want to inspect the books? I’m an excellent bookkeeper, I assure you. You’ll find everything in order. Every copper accounted for!”

Robert nodded, his gaze picking out the bleeding hands of a child standing nearby. “Who is that boy there?”

“That? That’s Charlie’s sis Brenda.”

That was a girl? “She works in the mines?”

“Our last mine horse died a year ago from the air. Ain’t good for horses, you know. Then I realized that two or three young uns can pull a cart just as well and they appreciate the work. Helps their families, you know, and is cheaper fer us. Lord Brimley said it were good thinking.”

Robert didn’t doubt it. Lord Brimley was a pinchpenny in all aspects of his life except for his brandy. That made him, of course, a great jolly good friend to Robert’s father.

“As my family now owns this mine, Lord Brimley’s opinions are of no interest to me. And I shall see that there are new horses immediately.”

“Oh. Oh, dear. But what shall I tell the parents of all those dear children?”

“That their children should enjoy the fresh air while they are young. And that they shall be paid for the care of the horses instead.”

Robert didn’t wait to see Mr. Hutchins’s reaction to that statement but bent his attention to the mine entrance. Or more accurately, he spent a moment fighting his nausea at the thought of entering that dark maw. Mr. Hutchins must have sensed his hesitation as he sidled up.

“Perhaps you’d rather see the books first.”

Robert ground his teeth together and forced his stiff legs to obey him. It wasn’t a maw, for God’s sake. It was a mine entrance and dozens of workers went in and out of it every day. Women and children. He could go down despite the air of depressing filth that infused the entire county. An unhealthy miasma, to be sure.

“Charlie! Charlie, my boy!” called Mr. Hutchins. “Come along and show his lordship the ladders. Mind that you point out all the interesting bits.”

Charlie was no more a boy than Robert was. But he was obviously younger than Mr. Hutchins and had a warm smile that included all his teeth. “Aye, sir. Right this way, milord. First ladder is jes’ inside.” Then he walked quick as a wink into that dark maw.

Robert squared his shoulders and followed. He only paused once, and that was to glance back at Mr. Hutchins. “You know, I’m not sure Charlie will know quite all the things to show me. I believe I require your expert guidance.”

Mr. Hutchins had the predictable response: a grimace of distaste quickly covered. But he followed and now Robert was forced to step lively or be shown as craven as the heavyset Hutchins.

They moved slowly, Mr. Hutchins wheezing the entire way. They descended three more ladders, lit two barely flickering candles, and passed a dilapidated cart before Hutchins came to his first interesting tidbit.

“There’s the bones of the first fireman killed here, over a hundred years ago. Was burning off the gas, he was, and not a very fast runner, obviously.”

“My God,” Robert breathed. “Why wasn’t he taken up and buried?”

“Oh, well, it ain’t really his bones,” said Charlie. “Just the spare bits of a horse, I think, but we say it’s a miner to scare the kids into taking the work serious. The little ones especially need to be kept in line. It’s dangerous work down here, and we can’t have them thinking it’s games.”

Robert frowned. “Why would anyone think it’s a game?” When his father had first informed him of this mine purchase, Robert had rapidly tried to learn everything he could about coal mining. He was aware of some of the terrible dangers miners faced daily. He couldn’t imagine a child in this hellhole, much less that any would consider it a game.

“Ah, well, you know children,” Charlie said with a sad smile. “It’s hard on them at first, but there are some that will make fun of the worst things.”

Robert had no answer except that he never wanted this mine to employ a child ever again. If it were up to him, no man would have to come down here, either, but then again the nation needed its coal.

“I think that’s far enough, don’t you think?” asked Hutchins. Robert couldn’t really see the man in the dim light, but he could smell the sweat. Or maybe that was his own, as the heat was suffocating.

“No,” Robert forced out. “Show me where you’re working now.”

“But that’s a ways further down, my lord,” said Charlie, doubt lacing his tone. “And it’s none too pleasant.”

“Lead on,” he said grimly while his gut tightened. Then, to distract himself, he began asking questions of Charlie. Mr. Hutchins didn’t have the breath to answer, but Charlie had a good head and full understanding of the work being done. Robert’s head was nearly bursting with information when they came to the newest cut.

Miners were there with pickaxes and shovels, all stooped over as they worked. Robert’s clothing was drenched in sweat, and his head was pounding from the noise and the thick air, yet he was still compelled to greet every man and compliment his work as any noble lord should. It was his responsibility, and so he did his best though inside he was screaming to leave. And then he asked a most terrible question.

“But,” said Robert, looking at the rickety wood supports in the tunnel, “can those possibly be safe? What if someone accidentally knocked it with a shovel? Or if a child drove a cart into it?”

“We take care not to,” answered Charlie. That wasn’t a terribly inspiring answer to Robert, who was lifting his candle to inspect the wood. To his eye, it was thin and worm-eaten.