​Prologue
 
​An old Spanish proverb would dare claim a great dowry
can ony bring a bed full of brambles.  So what, pray tell,
would a small dowry bring? Nothing, I suppose, but dirty
linen in shamles.  No matter the size of your dowry, ladies,

understand that finding a worthy suitor will always be a gamble. 
—How to Avoid a Scandal, Author Unknown

 

London, England
Late April 1829


LADY JUSTINE FEDORA PALMER knew all too well that her dear, dear father, the sixth Earl of Marwood, had always been an intelligent and upstanding, moral citizen.  He would have never dared to provoke a political or social stampede amongst any of the tribes he’d befriended throughout his years as a South African naturalist.  Especially the most notorious and savage of all human tribes –- the British ton. 
     Yet whenever it came to the subject of zoological breeding, her father became a soul of too many words with absolutely no sense of restraint.  Which was why the poor man was now sitting in prison.
His newly published observations on innate buggery amongst South African mammals -- which he argued God allowed in His Natural Kingdom and therefore His Royal Majesty should allow in Ours -- had ruffled far too many feathers to count.  Including that of His Royal Majesty.
     Though her father had been found innocent of conspiring to promote buggery and moral corruption, he was still caged in Marshalsea Debtors Prison due to an array of exorbitant fines he simply could not pay.  Unlike most ladies, who might have long languished beneath such scandal mongering, Justine had never been one for wilting.  Her unusual upbringing had made her worldly enough to understand that every female, no matter her genus and species, had the ability to physically coerce a male into full cooperation. 
     And yes, she knew just the male to coerce.  A male she’d wanted to coerce ever since she first came to London two years ago at the age of eighteen: her father’s sole academic patron, the notorious Duke of Bradford.  Better known to the herds of London as THE Rake Extraordinaire, whose appreciation for women knew no bounds and whose pockets and generosity were as deep as the sky is wide.
     Despite his libertine façade which boasted a slow, saucy grin and smoky dark eyes that invited every woman to play, there was so much more to him than his appearance.  He had a genuine warmth, intelligence and depth outside of the wild antics he always used to garner attention.  She remembered one evening in particular when her adoration for the man had fully bloomed into a yearning that made her toes curl within her silk stockings. 
     While her parents and the duke still played five card loo with a group of ladies and gents after a dinner party, she’d opted to sit in a chair on the other side of the room and read so she wouldn’t have to be teased anymore by her overly competitive father.  Promptly after her aloof departure from the card table, the duke had tossed his own cards and formally announced no lady ought to be disrespected for her lack of card skills.  With an impressive sweep, he then hoisted his chair up over his head and swaggered with it across the room like an acrobat.  He even pretended to stumble beneath its weight in an effort to make her giggle. 
    With a well satisfied breath, he’d settled his chair and himself across from her, insisting she set aside her book and tell him more about the fascinating life she’d led in Africa.  Though his gaze had a tendency to wander flirtatiously to inappropriate places –- which she rather enjoyed -- he still listened very intently to everything she had to say as if every word that escaped her lips mattered, as if she mattered.
     Tragic though it was, the man had never been the marrying sort, and no one knew that more than her parents, who had repeatedly warned her to keep her virtue as far away from the man as possible.  Despite all of their tiring lectures on the matter and despite having read How To Avoid A Scandal many, many times, Justine knew a lady couldn’t always avoid scandal.  Especially when one’s father was being persecuted for demanding rights for sodomites using the animal kingdom as his platform. 
     After dotting a piece of parchment with rosewater she’d borrowed from a neighbor, Justine daintily scribed a missive to the duke, similar to the countless weekly missives she’d sent to him ever since first meeting him.  The duke had never once responded, which her mother was thankful for, but Justine continued to scribe him weekly letters all the same.
     In this particular letter, however, she offered Bradford a bit more than the usual gossip about herself and her family.  She offered him several nights in exchange for her father’s release.  Having no dowry and no suitor, she wasn’t too worried about harvesting her virginity to a man that offered no wedding prospect.  She only hoped her mother and father would understand. 
     Though it had been many months since she had last seen the duke, and there were muddled whispers about him being disfigured due to his involvement with a less than reputable woman, not a single drop of the story intimidated her.  She felt that her father’s comfort, safety and sanity trumped any of her own womanly misgivings.
     Not even three days after her letter had been delivered to the duke, his footman appeared at their door and presented the following letter:

    
     Lady Justine,
     I can only apologize for ever leading you to believe I was capable of ruining     anyone in their most desperate hour, let alone a lady of esteemed quality such as yourself.  Although I cannot and will not be able to accept your offer, I would like to propose something else.  At three and thirty, I have come to the profound realization that I am not getting any younger.  Or prettier.  It is time I take a wife.  I have received and immensely enjoyed every letter you have sent and fondly remember each time I have been in your company.  Therefore, I foresee no complications in asking for your hand in marriage.  Whilst there are various rumors surrounding my current physical state, I can assure you, I am in excellent health.  Though I did sustain one sizable scar, it is nothing to fret over.  Should you and your father agree to our marriage, a license will be applied for and the wedding will be set to take place in six weeks time. In turn, I would be delighted to pay all debts imposed upon your father so as to ensure his prompt release from Marshalsea.
I await your respnse,
Bradford
     And all along she thought he'd never ask.
     London be damned for treating her father with such horrid disdain.  She was finally going to earn some respect for herself and her family.  She was going to be the Duchess of Bradford, and she had every intention of demanding respect from everyone, at every turn, from this day forth.
©2011 DelilahMarvelle