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Excerpt from Once Upon a Time in Bath

(The Brides of Bath, Book 7)


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Chapter 1

 Forrester Timothy Appleton, recently elevated to Viscount Appleton, looked up at his closest friend through bleary eyes.

“What the devil’s so bloody important that you summoned me . . .” Sir Elvin drew a deep breath, “before noon on a Sunday morning?”

“You must prevent me from blowing my brains out.” Appleton eyed the pistol on the table beside the bed from which he had not yet extracted himself.

Elvin’s gaze shifted from the pearl-handled pistol to his disheveled friend. “Why, pray tell, would you be wanting to kill yourself?”

“Because ever since the death of my brother, I’ve shown myself to be unworthy of his title, and now I’ve ruined my family.”

“How could you possibly have ruined your family?”

Appleton’s eyes watered. “Quite easily. Last night at Mrs. Starr’s I gambled away every farthing to my name . . .” His voice splintered as if he were about to break down like a woman. “I even wagered and lost this house. Killing myself would be less painful than knowing I’ve failed my sisters.”

Sir Elvin said not a word, but calmly crossed the chamber to the bedside table. He removed the pistol, then collapsed into a chair facing his friend’s bed, shaking his head in a most forlorn fashion. “Colossal catastrophe. Bloody colossal.”

Neither man spoke for a moment. Appleton felt even worse. By requesting Elvin’s presence here this morning, he’d hoped for a glimmer of encouragement.

Finally his friend spoke. “And you’ve got three more sisters to launch? And dower. Have you nothing left?”

Not the encouraging words he’d hoped to hear. Appleton slowly shook his head.

“I don’t understand. You enjoy gaming as much as the next fellow, but you’ve never lost your head before—even after you inherited and had rather plump pockets. It ain’t your personality to be totally without reason.”

“It must have been the drink.”

“It’s not as if you can’t hold your spirits. Why, you’ve always been able to remain upright when the rest of us were sprawled under the table.”

“I don’t know what came over me last night. I must have been a pathetic toss pot. Got no memory of it. I remember sitting down at Ellie’s table. . .”

Elvin wiggled his brows. “Ellie’s a fetching little thing.”

Appleton nodded. “The next thing I remember is waking up here when Bertram brought me a message.” He drew a deep breath. “You will never guess who the message was from.”

His face pensive, Sir Elvin raised a brow.


“What did that blighter Henry Wolf want from you?”

“It seems he’s in possession of my IOUs.” Appleton shook his head in a most forlorn fashion. “That was how I learned of my ruin.”

Sir Elvin’s brows scrunched together. “Are you sure about the house? You lost it, too?”

Appleton could retch at the thought, but there was nothing left to empty. “According to Penguin’s note.”

“I should have been there.” Sir Elvin frowned. “Fact is, I promised my sister I’d accompany her to one of those beastly musicals last night. So sorry, old fellow. I feel like I’ve let you down.”

A light tap sounded at the chamber door, and the Appleton butler stepped into the room. “A Mr. Wolf to see you, my lord.”

The two friends exchanged distasteful glances. “Have him wait in the library, then send Digby up to make me presentable.”

“He’s probably here to gloat over your misfortune. He’s always hated all of us—you, George, Blanks, me and my twin—because we had bonds of friendship, and he had no friends whatsoever.”

“Nothing’s changed in that respect. Even with all his money, Penguin couldn’t buy a friend.” Appleton winced as he rose from the bed. “He’s got even more reason to hate me.”

Sir Elvin’s eyes narrowed. “Why?”
“I gave him the cut direct.”

“When was this? Why haven’t I heard about it?”

“It happened in London. At Almack’s. He’d spent the better part of the night watching Annie, and when he walked toward me and my sisters, I knew he meant to ask for an introduction.”

“Course you couldn’t introduce your sister to a man like Wolf!”

“Exactly. That’s why I had to give him the cut direct. Turned my back to him.”

“Good for you! I wouldn’t let him within ten feet of my sisters. Not after that business in Windsor.”

* * *

A clean shave, freshly starched cravat, and finely tailored clothing could do little to compensate for Appleton’s bloodshot eyes, throbbing head, or his oppressive melancholy as he and Sir Elvin strode into the walnut-paneled library half an hour later. The emerald velvet draperies had been opened to reveal a day as gloomy as he felt.

When Henry Wolf rose to greet him, Appleton would have cast up the contents of his stomach—had he not already done so these past several hours until not a drop remained.

Wolf’s thick black mane and caterpillar eyebrows contrasting with pasty white skin accounted for the nickname Penguin. Appleton’s good manners had prevented him from actually addressing the fellow in such a disparaging way. Still, there was no love lost between the two.

Though Appleton prided himself on his courtliness, it was impossible for him to be civil to Henry Wolf now. Appleton had only to recall how the foul creature had ruthlessly stolen the innocence of a young Windsor maiden when they were Etonians.

The Wolf family fortune had insulated him from any penalties for his wrongdoings, but Appleton and his friends had long memories, a disgust of abusing maidens—and a disdain for evading justice.

Appleton crossed the small chamber and came face to face with the visitor, who was the same height as he. “You wished to see me?”

Wolf reached into his well-cut black jacket and withdrew a handful of IOUs from Mrs. Starr’s. “Yes. I purchased these from the proprietress of Bath’s finest gaming establishment. I believe one of them is for the ownership of the very house in which we now stand.” His malevolent pale green eyes repulsed Appleton.

How in the devil was Appleton to get these back when he’d lost everything? Had Wolf come here solely to take pleasure in his misery? “I did not know you had a fancy to live in my house and displace not only me but also my three unmarried sisters.”

“My good man, you misjudge me. I’ve come to help you. In fact, I should like to give all these back to you. It would be as if last night never happened.”

Henry Wolf was incapable of helping anyone except himself. He would push his own mother off a bridge if she prevented his passage. “I never took you for the benevolent sort, old fellow.”

“Ah, but you have something I want.”

Of course. Appleton’s eyes widened. He failed to see what he could possibly have that Henry Wolf would want. “I am perfectly willing to hear you out, but I think you must be mistaken.”

Wolf moved toward the fire. His shiny black Hessians abutted the gleaming brass fender surrounding the hearth..

“Would you care to sit?” Appleton asked. “Can I offer you Madera?”

“Nothing to drink, but I will sit.”

Wolf sat on one end of the emerald sofa that faced the fire and Elvin at the other end. Appleton seated himself in a large, armchair near the fire and faced the man he loathed.

The notion that there might be some way to reclaim this house lifted Appleton’s spirits, but he knew Wolf could not be trusted. What game was he playing? Appleton tried to think of things that he might be asked to do, services which might need to be performed in exchange for the return of the IOUs.

Perhaps this friendless man merely wanted an introduction into the Bath society where Appleton and his friends mingled so easily. For such a reward, Appleton could put aside his dislike of Wolf and take him to the Upper Assembly Rooms.

Just as long as he kept away from Appleton’s sisters.

Appleton heaved a sigh. “So. . . what can I do in order to regain ownership of our house?” He was careful to say our instead of my. He knew Wolf hated him. Perhaps Appleton’s sisters’ plight might elicit a more sympathetic ear.

“I should like the hand of your sister Annie in marriage.”

Elvin gasped.

Appleton felt as if a saber plunged into him as he leapt to his feet and drilled Wolf with hatred in his eyes. “Never!”

A slow, sadistic smile on his chalk white face, Wolf rose from the sofa. “You have four weeks in which to decide if you’ll accept me for your sister’s husband or lose everything except that pile in remote Shropshire, where I assure you, those sisters of yours will die old maids.”

Appleton would rather them die old maids than be united to the devil himself.

Wolf stalked toward the door.

“Do I have four weeks in which to buy back my debts from you?”

Wolf turned. “I know you have no more money, and none of your friends can get their hands on that much in four weeks.”

Appleton nodded. “That’s true. It’s a million to one, but last night proved I’m a gambler.”

“Very well. You’ve got four weeks. With one caveat.”

Appleton lifted a brow.

“I will demand an introduction to Annie.”

It was a moment before Appleton could answer. “One dance and one dance only Tuesday night at the Upper Assembly Rooms.” He would make sure Annie, his favorite sister, was well apprised of Henry Wolf’s ineligibility.

But he’d not tell her about the bizarre proposal. Annie was just tender hearted enough to try to sacrifice herself for her brother.

* * *

Even though Sir Elvin Steffington was his closest friend—and only other friend who was still a bachelor—Appleton still got Elvin mixed up with his twin, Melvin. If they had not appeared to be identical duplicates of one another, the brothers would never have been taken for twins, owing to the vast differences in their personalities. Bookish, scholarly Melvin had not discovered women until he was nearing thirty while Sir Elvin abhorred books and was considered by many to be Bath’s resident rake—along with Appleton.

Both Steffington twins and their friend Gregory Blankenship, known as Blanks, were ensconced with Appleton in the Blankenship library to discuss Appleton’s seemingly hopeless situation.

“It seems the easiest solution is to just let Annie marry the man,” one of the twins said. That’s when Appleton knew without a doubt the speaker was Melvin.

Three sets of eyes stared at the younger twin as if he had just escaped from Bedlam.

“Do you not remember what Penguin did to that innkeeper’s young daughter in Windsor?” his brother demanded.

Melvin screwed up his mouth. “You know I wasn’t interested in petticoats when I was at Eton.”

“He could never get his nose out of a book for long enough,” Blanks mumbled.

His twin shrugged. “I would never allow one of our sisters to associate with Henry Wolf, and Appleton feels the same about his sisters.”

“The man is unfit to be in the same chamber with respectable ladies,” Appleton said. “I feel beastly that I’m even going to allow Penguin to dance once with Annie, but at least it will be beneath the glow of five huge chandeliers amidst hundreds of spectators.”

“And we’ll all be there to offer protection,” Sir Elvin offered.

Melvin eyed Appleton. “So if you don’t allow Annie to marry this vile man, you have four weeks in which to raise an exceedingly vast amount of money? Is that correct?”

Appleton nodded.

“A pity none of us can get our hands on anything near the amount of money you need.” Blanks frowned. “Buying Jonathan’s house took every guinea I could get my hands on.”

“But. . .” Melvin smiled. “There may be a solution.”

Three sets of eyes riveted to the scholarly twin.

“You’ve got four weeks in which to woo and wed an heiress.”

Appleton harrumphed. “Normally, I would have been opposed to such a plan, but I don’t deserve personal happiness after what I’ve done. I could sacrifice myself for my family. Pity of it, I know no heiresses.”

“Actually . . .” Blanks’ brows lowered, “just this morning Glee was speaking of some dreadful . . . er, unfortunate heiress who’s come to Bath with her ailing father. Glee felt rather sorry for her because she has no friends, and she’s . . . well she’s rather peculiar. They call her the Cat Lady because she goes nowhere without carrying around a cat.”

Elvin brightened. “Yes! I’ve heard of her, too. They say she’s the only child of some vastly wealthy landowner who’s to settle eight hundred a year on her.”

Four sets of eyes widened.

Such a woman would indeed answer his needs, but at the same time the very notion sickened him. An unfortunate cat woman. He would wager—though he was never going to wager again—there were other reasons a woman with a vast fortune was still unwed, and he suspected these reasons had much to do with a most unpleasant appearance.

Was she fat? Or perhaps her figure resembled a flagpole. He wasn’t certain which he would prefer. He wondered if she stunk. Or could she be possessed of a hideously ugly face?

Regardless of her shortcomings, he should put his own feelings aside and be willing to forego his own happiness as penance for his wrongdoing. After all, he was now head of the Appleton family. For the first time in his thirty years, he had others to care for. He must put their needs before his own. “Pray, what is this woman’s name?”

Blanks looked perplexed. “Hmmmm. Her surname is uncommon. I cannot recall it.”

Elvin nodded. “There’s a Pank in there, I do believe.”

“I believe you’re right!” Blanks said.

“Like Pankcrest or something to that effect?” Appleton asked.

“Very like that , I’d say.” Elvin eyed Blanks.

Blanks screwed up his mouth. “But not quite.”

“I supposed if one were to lolly about the Pump Room day in and day out, one could meet her.” Appleton was resigned to his melancholy fate. “One would know her by the cat she’d be clutching.”

“Excellent plan,” Melvin said. “It is to be hoped you’re enamored of felines, old fellow.”

Appleton frowned. “I’m a dog person.”


* * *

“Would you bring me a rug, love,” Westmoreland Pankhurst asked his daughter. “It’s getting colder in this chamber.”

Dorothea stroked the black-and-white cat that curled upon her lap, loudly purring. “The physician said it would do you good to walk more, Papa.”

“But my gout’s flaring up today.”

Today it was the gout. Yesterday it was his back. The day before it was a throbbing head. Sighing, she lifted the cat and set it on the Turkey carpet. “Here you go, Fur Blossom. Duty calls.”

She stood and eyed her silver-haired father, who sat before the fire, one foot propped on a stool three feet from the hearth. He had begun to remind her of an Oriental potentate who lay about being waited upon. He needed only curly-toed slippers and a turban to complete the picture of total indolence.

She took him a thick woolen rug and covered his lower extremities. “Perhaps this will keep your foot from burning. It’s far too close to the fire.”

“Be a dear and get me one thing more,” he said.

Her eyes narrowed. “Let me guess. A glass of brandy.”

“Ah, my daughter is clairvoyant.”

She was neither physician nor apothecary, but she believed her father’s affinity for strong spirits contributed to his health problems. After she offered him the drink, she returned to her favorite reading—the Bath Chronicle—this time putting her white cat, Preenie Queenie, on her lap, but after a few minutes she tossed the cat down as punishment for clawing at the pages.

It was really the most peculiar thing the way she eagerly perused the gossip within the pages of this newspaper. She knew not a soul being mentioned. Perhaps it was because she had lived in so remote a place for the entirety of her three-and-twenty years that these snippets fascinated her. In a few short weeks she had memorized the names of many of Bath’s figures of Society.

“Now that we’re in a city,” her father said, “it’s time you see about dressing like the wealthy young woman you are. You’ll never attract a husband in those old rags you persist in wearing, and you need a husband. I’m not always going to be here.”

She rolled her eyes. “You’re but nine-and-forty, Papa. I declare, you speak as if you’re twice that age—though I daresay you’re beginning to act it, too!”

“Would that I enjoyed more robust health,” her father said in his most martyred voice.

“I’m willing to make a pact with you, Papa. I will see a dressmaker if you will walk there with me.”

“The lure to see you in lovely clothing with men clamoring for your attention is very strong.” Mr. Pankhurst sighed. “I suppose I could force myself to endure so exhausting an excursion for you.”

She tossed her head back and laughed. Love was, indeed, blind. The likelihood of men falling prostrate over her was ridiculous. Nothing about her could possibly elevate her above average. “How am I to even meet young men?”

“You could go to the assemblies this town is noted for.”

“By myself?”

“Perhaps you’ll meet other young people. I feel bad I’ve kept you to myself all these years at Blandings with no exposure to anyone close to your own age.”

“I’ve had you, and I’ve had my cats. I didn’t need anyone else.”

Mr. Pankhurst shook his head solemnly, tenderness in his eyes that were the same shade of brown as hers. “I can’t chance exposure to damp, rainy weather with my delicate health, but if it’s dry tomorrow, I will walk with you to the dressmaker’s.”


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