A Widow’s Guide to Scandal

A Widow's Guide to Scandal

The first installment in debut author Hallie Alexander’s steamy Sons of Neptune Series introduces readers to a band of heroic rebels at the brink of the American Revolution.

Henrietta Smith was fifteen when she stole a kiss from Marcus Hardwicke. Over a decade later, she’s still waiting to be kissed back…

Henrietta learned the hard way that when you get what you pay for you might end up with a British soldier quartering in your home threatening your friends, an enormous dog tracking mud through your house and stealing the chickens, and Marcus Hardwicke disrupting your uncomplicated life by trying to improve it. And to think she just wanted her roof fixed.

Marcus, wickedly handsome carpenter and rebel rogue, fell off Henrietta’s leaking roof. He can’t leave until his broken ankle heals, giving him plenty of time to consider his past mistakes, including Henrietta’s indelible kiss from a lifetime ago. But Henrietta could lose more than her home if she doesn’t encrypt British secrets, and the latest puts Marcus in the crosshairs.

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    Content Warnings
  • Death of a child (not on page)
  • PTSD; anxiety
  • Learning disability perceived as lowering
  • Anger/attempted violence
  • Pregnancy

Excerpt from A Widow’s Guide to Scandal

April 1776
Turtle Bay, New York

Henrietta Caldwell, née Smith, stepped inside the carpentry shop as if entering a new world. Not exactly like a bold explorer. More like she’d purposefully stumbled upon it, and now that she had, she hoped the natives wouldn’t notice.

There were half a dozen men congregating around a dangerous-looking contraption. Between the whirring of a foot pedal and a metal tool scraping against a spinning piece of wood, deafening noise filled her ears. She stepped around a bin of odd chunks of wood to better avoid the section of a tree stump impaled by an axe sitting in the middle of the floor.

She could use some help to find what she needed, but asking for it, interrupting the serious work these men were performing, calling attention to herself in a space where she didn’t belong, terrified her more than if her small circle of society knew she’d fallen to this level of desperation.

At the far wall, beside an open window, a variety of tools lay cluttered on a shelf. An inch of dust blanketed everything, even with a stream of fresh air funneling in. As Henrietta studied the hammers and mallets, not that she knew which was which, she was relieved to not have to witness her reflection in the adjacent window frame. If it were a painting, she’d have titled it: Portrait of Lady Futility Ruling Over Lost Opportunities.

Henrietta forced herself to stop twisting the gold wedding band she still wore beneath her glove, a habit she thought she’d quit after her husband’s death a year ago when she buried him along with her constant vigilance. She didn’t need this trouble, or any trouble, in her life. A leaky roof shouldn’t be her undoing, and yet.

Hadn’t she earned a season or two of tranquility?

Apparently not.

With a resigned sigh, she lifted a hammer with one hand and a mallet with the other. One had a metal handle and the other wood. They looked like they were meant to accomplish the same task: pounding an unsuspecting object with blunt force. One at a time, she gave them each an experimental swing. The heavier one slipped from her grip and landed with a thud, leaving a dent in the wide plank flooring.

Slapping her free hand to her face, she peered through her fingers at the half dozen men. All remained focused on the spinning contraption but one. A stocky man wearing a gray cap tore his gaze away from her burning flesh. He was probably right now telling the others about the silly little woman. How she thought she knew what she was doing but really had no idea, and how they should all teach her a lesson about sticking to mutton and mops.

As if she chose this life.

Henrietta no longer felt the breeze streaming in through the window. The dusty air of the shop stifled her. She couldn’t bear their mocking. She’d rather live with the state of her roof, the leaks, and the mold. Sweat slid down the channel of her spine, pasting her shift to her skin. The bones of her stays became an iron vise, making the foreboding in her chest tighter. The more she tried to draw a breath, the less she brought in.

Clawing at her fichu, she tried to tear it from her neck. The flimsy fabric tightened. She gasped as panic overwhelmed her. She needed to be home, surrounded by familiar things.

She fled for the door.

It took all of three steps outside for her galloping heart to slow. Curls of wood shavings drifted with the breeze, swirling around her, mixing the scent of wood baking in the sun and the briny air from the East River. The cotton sleeves of her dress danced against her skin.

“Can’t leave without paying, miss.”

Henrietta spun to find a man standing behind her. Her heart tripped back to a gallop. He’d been hunched over the noisy contraption with the others when she entered. Now, she saw all too well the size of him. He filled the doorway with his height, the breadth of his shoulders, and confidence as if he were what held the building up. The loose open collar of his shirt exposed his collarbone where a black leather cord hung at his neck. The sweaty notch of his throat glistened in the sunlight. And how could she miss the dark stubble on his strong jaw? His tousled hair, brown streaked with gold, hung from a messy queue, making her fingers itch to tunnel through the curling strands.

She wanted to touch him? A stranger. The idea alarmed her.

Searching for signs of danger, she studied his eyes and nearly tripped over her own feet. He was no stranger at all. She knew those hooded eyes.

“The mallet. Three dollars.”

Gripped in her right hand, she found said mallet and considered chucking it at his head. He took a step toward her.

She couldn’t believe it. Not one flicker of recognition.

Marcus Hardwicke, who had filled out through the shoulders and gained an inch or two in height, prowled closer, determination in his cool, blue eyes. “What’s your project? Cabinetry? Lutherie? Marquetry?”

“Market-ry?” Henrietta was sure she misunderstood.

“You know you can’t sew with that thing, right?”

Henrietta turned the mallet around in her hand to view it from another angle. “It would make a hell of a thimble.” She squeezed her eyes, hoping a black void would swallow her up. “Pardon my language.”

“Still three dollars.” His eyes glittered with amusement, like sunlight striking the crest of waves.

She gave the mallet one last heft and tossed it into his quick hands. “I need a carpenter more than I need carpenter’s tools.” Keeping her home in working order was no small task. The roof needed new shingles, the floorboards were loose, and the hinge on the cupboard quit when a particularly loud thunderclap shook the house during the last storm. Her husband’s will provided a small allowance. Her husband’s uncle, who outright owned her home, couldn’t be bothered with details, but he’d blame her anyway if the house fell to ruin.

So long as it didn’t rain again, she’d be fine. “I’m fine. Everything’s fine.”

She woke telling herself this. Said it when she went to sleep too.

The sun baked through her dress.

“I hadn’t asked, but it sure don’t seem like everything’s fine. I saw the look on your face before you ran out. Red as a beet and sweating like a horse in a lather.”

Henrietta choked. “You, sir, are no gentleman! And if I dressed in as little clothing as you, perhaps I wouldn’t be so bloody hot. Have you any idea what it’s like for a woman?” She was tempted to try to rip the fichu from her neck again, ball it up, and stomp on it. Then she’d ball it up again and toss it as far as she could. Likely the wind would throw it back in her face. She should set the stupid thing on fire.

She was overheating again.

Panting like a horse in a lather, Henrietta couldn’t find the opening to her pocket at the side of her skirt where she kept her fan. Her sweaty hands plunged into the pleats and came up empty. The more she sought her pocket, the more she couldn’t find it.

Marcus advanced on her.

“Are you unwell?” His hand rose to touch her as if they were familiars. They hadn’t been in over a dozen years.

Taking a leap back, Henrietta withdrew her fan in an arc, a might close to his nose. She flicked it open and waved it frantically. She needed to whisk the heat from her skin, the embarrassment coupled with the upwell of forgotten desire.

The side of his mouth tugged up, and she knew he knew. Her stomach dropped from a hundred feet.

“Hetty Betty Smith. How the hell are you?”

“A bit warm, thank you for asking.” The fan waved errant blonde hairs around the flapping brim of her straw hat. She raised her chin and gazed into his familiar eyes. Why was he still so handsome? “Am I truly unrecognizable, Marcus?”

“Hetty Betty, a man couldn’t easily forget you. But you haven’t been Hetty Betty Smith in a long time, have you?”

“It’s Caldwell. Is. Was.” Henrietta rolled her eyes. Sam died last year, and she still hadn’t mustered the emotional resources to mourn.

“My condolences, Mrs. Caldwell.” Marcus bowed theatrically over an extended leg.

“Don’t be a fool.” She swatted him with her fan as if the last thirteen years hadn’t shaped them into adults. When was the last time she joked?

His face brightened with a wide grin. Nice to see he had all of his teeth. Was he assessing her too? For a woman nearing thirty, she could look a lot worse. Would he see her that way, or would he recall the mousy girl he had rejected?

“Pretty Hetty Betty.” He shook his head, clicking his tongue.

Dear God. He remembered everything, didn’t he? The one time she took a risk.

“Stop. No one’s called me that since childhood.” Since playing tag by the pond in the shade of the old great barn. Since stealing a kiss not meant for her.

“Pity.” Marcus squinted one eye and followed the trail of a gull across the sky. “Gonna rain later.”

A sound of distress rose in her throat. She crumpled at his prediction. Not physically. Her stays held her too tightly. It was more of an emotional withering.

“Have something to do with why you’re here?”

She held herself tall. “I have a roof lacking confidence.”

Reaching into her pocket, easily this time, she removed her curated list. He took the list, barely sparing it a glance.

“And you thought to buy a mallet and threaten it into confidence? Were you planning to climb a ladder in your pretty dress, without breaking your neck, to nail down all the new shingles you haven’t thought to purchase?” With one hand, he wadded up the list, tossing it behind himself, into the drifting wood shavings.

Henrietta scoffed. “They were on my list.”

Marcus raised a brow. “How are you hauling all the shingles up there? Mighty heavy.”

The way he was challenging her made Henrietta want to hold her ground. “You don’t know how many I need.”

“I’m guessing you don’t either. So far, your project stinks.”

Blood and thunder! What kind of game was this?

“Well.” She looked him up and down, eager to conjure a damning retort. All thought ceased as she took in his narrow hips and the flare of his thighs in his leather breeches. How had he become more handsome since his stripling years? Stop staring. Stop staring. “So do you.”

His barking laughter echoed in the courtyard, bouncing off the other buildings. She raised the blade of her jaw as if it might protect her. From where he stood, when a subtle breeze billowed his shirt, Henrietta knew how wrong she was. He smelled of clean, masculine sweat, like the spice of burnt wood and the sweetness of sawdust.

“Glad to see you haven’t bleached away your freckles.” His hand scraped against his unshaven jaw, smothering the last chuckles.

She touched the bridge of her nose. Wearing a hat today offered little protection from all the summers she ran with the boys without one. “Truly?” Sam deemed them vulgar.

Marcus nodded. “You going to let me fix your roof or not?”

There was nothing intimidating in his stance, or in his reaction to her candor. Henrietta did not know how to respond. Her usual defenses weren’t needed.

The tips of her shoes poking out from under her dress became immensely fascinating. “No.” She couldn’t. “Thank you.”

“Awww, come now, Hetty Betty. I owe you at least that much.”

Henrietta’s head popped up. “Do you?” She remembered things differently. She’d wronged him.

“Sure.” Marcus shrugged this off, likely unaware of how he’d affected her.

She shouldn’t have sounded eager or grateful. If she’d learned anything in her years of marriage, showing vulnerability always came back to haunt her. She bit her lip, bracing for a recrimination that never came.

Henrietta sighed. “I—” She wasn’t sure how to respond. Instead, she fussed with the ruby brooch pinning her fichu in place. The nicest things she owned came from her mother. If he looked closely enough, he’d recognize it. He might even notice the aging quality of her dress. “I can’t afford you.”

Marcus’s gaze flicked over her again, as he came to his own conclusion, whatever it was. Men never saw the same things women did. “I appreciate the compliment but you haven’t heard my price.”

“Then I most definitely must refuse.”

One side of Marcus’s mouth lifted, twisting her stomach into a knot. “Fine. Name it.”

“That’s impossible.” She had no idea what his services might cost, but she wouldn’t insult him with what she could afford either.

“A lot of things are impossible, Hen. Fixing your roof is one of the few that ain’t.”

Marcus’s answer was the most truthful thing he’d offered. She could neither deny her need for his help nor her want of it.

“Fine. You may fix my roof. In return, I’ll cook you supper. You may come on Thursday at noon. No sooner and no later.” She wagged a finger at him for good measure. Trust was an even greater commodity she lacked.

Marcus saluted her. “You drive a tough bargain, madam.”

As she watched his retreating form, and what a sight that was, she realized he’d disarmed her. Her heart no longer raced, her dress made her feel like a lady and not a tangle of limbs trapped in bindings, and the brackish spring air rolling off the East River refreshed her ravenous lungs. Either way, she wasn’t convinced letting Marcus back into her life was a good idea.

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