"... and you will not believe what I was told about Lady ..." Mrs. Bianca Roberts continued without so much as a pause for breath. And why should she? The latest on-dit about Lady Whoever-she-was-talking-about-now was entirely too tasty to keep to herself.
Under other circumstances, Miranda, Lady Garret, would be alternately amused or annoyed at her inability to get a word in. Today, she appreciated her sister's ramblings. She had entirely too much on her mind to pay any attention at all, and Bianca's enthusiastic and incessant chatter made it unnecessary to do so. All Bianca really required in terms of a response was the occasional nod or murmur of surprise or clucking of the tongue. In recent years, Miranda had become quite adept at it. It did seem she did some of her best thinking when Bianca was confident she had her rapt attention.
"... can imagine my surprise, of course. Particularly when I heard, from a quite reliable source mind you, that she had had quite enough ..."
Miranda sipped her tea and smiled with encouragement. She had long gotten over this particular deception. It did no real harm and kept her sister from prying too deeply into Miranda's activities. Activities she would much prefer to keep private. Who knew how her family—especially her brothers—might react? The Hadley-Attwaters considered themselves a fairly proper family.
Adrian, of course, would be the most disapproving. Her oldest brother and the current Earl of Waterston was a great stickler for propriety even if, on occasion, he could also be most surprising. Miranda suspected that was due to the influence of his wife, Evelyn. Still, one couldn't count on most surprising. Her next older brother, Hugh, was a barrister and, as such, all too cognizant of proper behavior. Her remaining brother, Sebastian, who had always flouted tradition in his own life, might well be her greatest ally given his wife Veronica's outspoken tendencies and penchant for support of various rights for women. Although, on the other hand, what one overlooked in one's wife, one might not accept in one's sister.
As for the female members of the family, one never quite knew on which side of a debate her mother and her oldest sister Diana would fall. Mother could be startlingly progressive when she wished to be, and Diana had always had an independent nature. Even so, this was not the sort of thing with which one wanted to test them. Bianca might think it rather exciting, but she had never been particularly good at keeping a secret. Precisely why Miranda had gone to great pains not to reveal so much as a hint of her activities. There was nothing Bianca liked better than ferreting out secrets. Her cousin, Portia, who was as much a sister to her as Diana and Bianca, would certainly be shocked. Why, it was one thing for a lady to dabble in the arts or to take up the cause of charitable works, and quite another to become involved in business. This simply wasn't the sort of thing a Hadley-Attwater did.
The fact that this was Miranda and not another member of the family would only add to their shock. Her family considered her the quietest of the lot and the most reserved. She was the youngest and the others had long felt she needed their protection. It was a source of annoyance even if she had never said anything. It had always been so much easier to avoid confrontation than to exhibit outright defiance. John had recognized, and indeed admired, her strength of character, which was yet another reason why she had loved him.
"... given that it was her fortune after all ..."
Not that her family had any say in the matter, not really.
Miranda was, after all, twenty-eight years of age and financially independent, and she had been a widow for nearly three years. She was used to making her own decisions now and make them she would. Besides, she enjoyed—no—loved what she was doing. While she did appreciate her family's advice—and as the youngest of six children, advice was in abundance—she would follow her own path. A path that had begun innocently enough. Indeed, one could say she had taken the first step upon that path when she had first met her late husband.
"... and needless to say, at first, I was shocked by the mere thought ..."
Miranda had met John Garret, younger brother of Viscount Garret, at a lecture on the influence of Palladio on English architecture. Miranda had been one of the few women present, but she had always had an interest in the design of buildings. Indeed, she had drawn houses—both practical and fanciful—for much of her life. So she had summoned her courage, enlisted the assistance of an elderly aunt as a chaperone, and attended.
The lecture had been fascinating but not nearly as interesting as the dashing Mr. Garret. He was handsome and amusing and of good family. To her eyes, he was very nearly perfect. He encouraged her interest in architecture and a good portion of their courtship consisted of attending lectures and viewing exhibits. Years later he admitted his encouragement had as much to do with being in her company as anything else. He quite swept her off her feet and they married within a few months. Shortly after their marriage, John opened his own architectural firm, thanks in part to funding from an anonymous investor who wanted nothing more than repayment and his name as part of the business. Thus was born the firm of Garret and Tempest.
Miranda had a good eye and an innate grasp of design, and when John brought home drawings she would make a suggestion here and point out a problem there. Before long, she was quietly working by his side. John was proud to admit she was much more creative than he was. During the six years of their marriage, he taught her everything he knew and she gradually took over most of the design work, whereas he was the public face of the firm.
"... could scarcely avoid the comparison, as it was so annoyingly obvious ..."
When John died in a construction accident, along with his construction supervisor, Mr. West, Miranda inherited the company, and its debts, and the firm continued with the projects already under way. Miranda hired Mr. West's sister, Clara—who had a clever mind with figures—to assist Mr. Emmett Clarke, who had been John's assistant. But in the second year after John's death Clara pointed out the firm would not survive without new business. For that they needed a chief architect. Upon reflection, Miranda still wasn't entirely sure how it had happened, but there had been a void in her life and doing the design work she had done with John filled that emptiness.
Now, Emmett was the liaison with clients, Clara ran the company and Miranda produced the designs. There were a handful of additional employees as well. Garret and Tempest had endured and Miranda continued to make regular payments to Mr. Tempest's financial representatives. While the firm was prospering, Miranda, Clara and Emmett knew if Miranda's role became public knowledge, the company would not survive, no matter how good its reputation. The world would simply not accept a woman doing work that was thought best done by men. But Miranda had an obligation to the people who had worked for John, and now worked for her, to avoid failure at all costs.
Keeping her work a secret, even from her family, hadn't been easy, especially when it came to Bianca. She wasn't merely Miranda's sister but her dearest friend. But Bianca hadn't seemed to notice that Miranda was unusually busy these days and that the sisters were meeting more and more often here at the Ladies Tearoom at Fenwick and Sons, Booksellers. It was convenient to the Garret and Tempest office, was a favorite of Sebastian's wife, Veronica, and, more importantly to Bianca, had become quite the place for ladies of society to frequent.
"... and I thought, if she could, why couldn't I? After all, it's not ..."
Miranda had just come from a meeting with Clara and Mr. Clarke about a lucrative new commission to redesign and rebuild a manor house that had been devastated by fire. While they couldn't afford to pass on the job, taking it would be difficult. Fairborough Hall was an hour away from London by train and the work would require the presence of someone from the firm nearly every day during construction. But Emmett's wife was with child and she was having difficulties. She had already had two previous miscarriages and her doctor was insisting she stay in bed. Emmett did not want to be away from London should she have need of him. Miranda and Clara could not fault him for that although the two women acknowledged between themselves, if his employer had been male, his reluctance would not have been tolerated. The three decided there was no choice but to have Miranda meet with Lord Stillwell and, should they get the commission, she would present the plans and represent the firm during construction. They agreed that there was no need to reveal the true architect.
"... which, of course, will prove difficult as I have not heard from him for more than a year now. Nor have I wished ..."
Aside from the obvious difficulties, Miranda wasn't at all sure she was up to the task of dealing with someone like Lord Stillwell. He had a reputation that could only be called, well, wicked. She'd never met the man, but she had seen him at one social event or another. He was quite handsome and dashing and reportedly most charming. He did seem to laugh a great deal and he inevitably had the most devilish glint in his eye. She thought he was around Sebastian's age and had skated remarkably close to scandal in his youth. Of course, so had her brothers. And while, from what she had heard, he had reformed somewhat with maturity, one could not discount his history. Why, the man had been engaged three times and had never once made it to the altar. Surely toying with the hearts of not one but three women was the very definition of wicked. One failed engagement might not be his fault, but three?
"... will be scandal, no doubt. But it does seem to me, in these circumstances, scandal is the lesser ..."
She'd never really met a man with quite as wicked a reputation, which did, in hindsight, seem rather a pity. Her brothers, of course, had all been enthusiastic in their younger days, but one did hesitate to think of one's own brothers as wicked. John hadn't been the least bit wicked. Now that he was gone, there had been moments, late in the night, when she had wondered what it might be like to be with a wicked man. In his arms, in his bed. She would never dare say it aloud, never admit it to anyone, but for Miranda Garret, wicked had a great deal of appeal. She was at once apprehensive and rather excited at the thought of meeting the wicked Lord Stillwell.
"Then you agree?"
Certainly the man wouldn't throw her to the ground and have his way with her on their first meeting. Nor would he run kisses up the inside of her arm or pull her into his embrace and press his lips to hers. The very idea was absurd. He was a gentleman, after all. She'd never truly been seduced although that too had a certain amount of appeal. Not that she would allow him to do so at any rate. Not on their first meeting, or ever. After all, she was a woman of business. And, even if it wasn't known to more than a handful of people, she rather liked the title. And a woman of business would never allow herself to be seduced by a man with a wicked reputation. Resolve washed through her. Why, the very thought that she could not handle Lord Stillwell was absurd. She was more than up to the challenge. Still, she couldn't deny her anticipation in regard to meeting the disreputable lord equaled her apprehension, even if there was—
"Do you agree or not?" Bianca said sharply.
Agree to what?
"There is a great deal to consider," Miranda said cautiously.
"That is exactly what I have been doing." Bianca's eyes narrowed. "You haven't listened to a word I said, have you?"
"I most certainly have."
"I get the distinct feeling more often than not that you pay absolutely no attention to me whatsoever."
"Don't be absurd." Miranda shrugged off the charge, ignoring a twinge of guilt at its accuracy. "You have my complete attention."
"Do I?" Bianca studied her closely. "Then tell me, do you or do you not agree with my decision to seek a divorce?"
"Divorce?" Miranda gasped in spite of herself. For once, Bianca's incessant chatter was important. Who would have imagined it?
"I knew you weren't listening," Bianca sniffed. "This is an enormous decision. The biggest decision of my life thus far aside from wedding that beastly man in the first place. And, as I value your opinion above all others, I should like to hear it."
"A Hadley-Attwater has never been divorced."
"I believe I mentioned that."
"Mother and Adrian and, oh, well, everyone will be shocked. And horrified really."
"Yes, I said that as well." Bianca's tone hardened.
"Absolutely no one will support you in this."
"I am prepared for that." Bianca's gaze met her sister's.
"What I want to know is will you? In spite of its shocking nature, do you think I'm doing the right thing?"
"Yes," Miranda said without thinking. "I do."
"Really?" Bianca stared. "You don't think I'm being rash or foolish?"
"No, I don't. You were rash and foolish when you married Martin. This decision is far wiser than that." Miranda shook her head. "The man has virtually abandoned you."
"We did not suit," Bianca said under her breath. It was more than simply not suiting, but Miranda knew better than to bring that matter up. She was the only one Bianca had ever confided in. Partially because she had felt so very stupid at her choice of husband and did not wish for the rest of the family to know and partially because her brothers would have more than likely killed the brute.
"You have been separated and living apart for nearly four years and you haven't even spoken for a good year or more."
"I don't know where he is." Bianca set her lips together in a firm line. "I fear I shall have to track him down before I can do anything at all."
"You do realize society may never forgive you."
"Nonsense." Bianca scoffed. "It has been my observation that society forgives anything if one is not involved in outright scandal or—"
"Divorce is generally considered outright scandal."
Bianca ignored her. "Or if one has enough money."
"And Adrian and Hugh were clever enough to take the legal precautions to make certain your money remained your own."
"I resented them a bit in the beginning, you know. The fact that they didn't completely trust the man I was to marry." Bianca heaved a heartfelt sigh. "One of the worst parts of this is having to admit they were right and I was so very wrong." She wrinkled her nose. "I do hate to admit I was wrong."
"That, dear sister, is a Hadley-Attwater trait. It's in our blood."
"Hopefully, they won't rub it in my face."
"I daresay they will all be most kind. Once they get over the shock." Miranda took her sister's hand. "Why, I suspect they won't even gloat for some time, perhaps even years."
"Something to look forward to, I suppose."
Miranda was not at all the kind of person to consider her own needs at the expense of others and she did not do so now. But she couldn't ignore the thought that the impropriety of her business pursuits paled dramatically in light of her sister's decision to seek a divorce. Indeed, if she timed the revelation of her secret correctly ...
"Then you think I have made the right decision?"
"Oh, my dear Bianca." Miranda cast her sister her most encouraging smile. "I don't know that you can do anything else."
Excerpted from The Importance of Being Wicked by Victoria Alexander Copyright © 2013 by Cheryl Griffin . Excerpted by permission of ZEBRA BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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