Scandalous Endeavors by Amanda Mariel

Prologue

London 1842

Amelia stood as still as a hollowed-out tree as drizzle coated her body in cool little beads. Dark clouds hung stationary overhead. Water spattered into a small, deep hole carved out of the rain-soaked ground. She surveyed the surrounding landscape speckled with memorial stones and decorated in wilted flowers. Why?

Uncle Lewis placed his arm around her shoulder, and she gazed up at him. His face, full of grief and sorrow, matched the heaviness in her heart. He did not say anything, just stretched his lips into a semblance of a smile. What could he say? Honestly, no words mattered; none could heal her broken heart.

At long last, the minister stopped eulogizing as the casket was lowered into the cold, soggy earth. The family’s servants stood behind the small gathering of relatives and close friends all waiting for the descent to end. Once it came to a rest, the gathering stepped forward one by one and dropped flowers into the deep abyss. The red roses Amelia clutched to her breast as if they could soothe her soul needed to be released from her numb fingers. She opened her hand, never taking her gaze from the casket. They landed with a quiet thud upon the polished surface. Uncle Lewis grabbed her hand, giving her the same pitiful look she had been getting from everyone for the past two months.

Were they all watching and waiting for her to shatter into a million pieces like delicate china. Maybe that is what people in her position were supposed to do; perhaps something was amiss with her. If so, she could not help it. She simply felt numb, like she had disappeared into a hellish oblivion. Her world spun out of control, with nary a semblance of what it used to be. She had become completely lost and abandoned. The only certainty was that her life had changed forever.

Tears stung her eyes and tightened her throat. She inhaled sharply and steeled herself against the emotions welling up within her. Her stomach clenched as she watched the first scoop of earth being tossed into the burial plot. Lightheadedness threatened to overpower her. She tucked her shaking hands into the folds of her shawl, hoping to still them.

She should not be here, but she’d begged Uncle Lewis to allow her to attend. Something deep within compelled her to see it with her own eyes. Amelia knew it would be scandalous, but did not care what the ton thought. Perhaps she should have cared. If she had followed proper etiquette her heart might not have been so shattered by the finality of it all.

“Amelia, it is time for us to go.” Her Uncle’s sorrowful voice drifted through her fog-muddled brain.

His grief was understandable. Papa and Uncle Lewis had been close friends since childhood. Amelia did not answer; what was there to say? He helped her up, and she settled on the plush black velvet seat of Papa’s favorite covered carriage.

Papa ordered it from London a few years ago as a gift for Mama. She never got to see it; they buried her the very day it arrived. Mama had been out riding at their country estate when her mount became spooked. The horse reared up, throwing her. She died instantly from a broken neck. The memory of her mother’s death deepened the hole inside Amelia. She looked at Uncle Lewis. What would become of her? Both Mama and Papa were now in their graves. She had no siblings. Her only surviving relative, Uncle Lewis, lived in America. She inhaled deeply and bit her lower lip to keep it from quivering.

Uncle Lewis arrived just in time to witness Papa’s passing. He had only returned to England for his brother-in-law’s funeral and to see after her. Would he stay until she reached majority? Or did he plan to take her to America? He remained a bachelor, so he had no family to return to. But he did have a plantation to worry about. By all accounts, he enjoyed success and happiness there. She slanted her glance at him. Of course, he would wish to return to his life. What reason would he have for remaining in England?

Amelia drew another shuddering breath and looked down at her gloved hands, which lay in her lap. Leaving her home, friends, and country behind had never been a part of her plan. England was all she had ever known. She had no power over her life. If only she were one-and-twenty. Then, she would have control over her inheritance and be able to make her own decisions.

As things stood, Uncle Lewis had been appointed her guardian. Papa placed the estate and family fortune in trust until she either married or reached majority. None of Papa’s property had been entailed, enabling him to will everything to her. Even his title, Viscount of Everthorne, transferred to her due to the method of its creation. She was now a wealthy and titled lady, but none of it mattered a whit if she were forced to emigrate. Amelia swallowed the knot in her throat. “Uncle Lewis…”

He regarded her once again with sympathy firmly ensconced in his eyes.

“What happens now?”

“Let us not worry about it at the moment. It has been a long day, and we are both exhausted.” He turned his gaze back to the carriage window.

What was he looking for? Perhaps he did not know what came next either. If only she could make the decision for them, she would tell him to stay in England. Amelia loved her family’s London townhouse and could not imagine leaving their country estate behind. She had never left England and did not want to do so now. Even if it would only be for two years...it might as well be for a lifetime.

The carriage jolted to a stop, pulling her from her musings and back into the real world. She glanced through the carriage window at the ornate facade of her townhouse. The large windows appeared the same as ever, but her life would never be the same again.

After departing the carriage, Uncle Lewis put out a hand to help her down. Edwin, the family’s butler, stood near the open oak door, ready to usher them inside. Several familiar carriages were parked in view, and voices drifted from within the townhouse. Amelia shoved back the emotions welling up in her. It would be undignified to cry in front of all these people.

She tightened her fingers on Uncle Lewis’s strong hand. “I do not think I can face them.”

He drew her to a stop in front of the first porch step. A small smile tugged at his lips. “Amelia, dear, no one expects you to interact. They know you are in mourning. I will see to our guests. You retire to your chambers and rest.”

Amelia gave him a weak grin of her own. “Thank you, Uncle Lewis.” Her emotions were overwhelmed with grief for Papa and the memories of Mama only added to her depression. When she considered her bleak-looking future on top of losing Papa…it was all too much. Rest, and the sleep that came with it would be most welcomed.