Authors: Lynsay Sands
For Melanie Jackson,
a dear friend who sees me through the worst times
Maggie shifted her feet slightly, trying to ease the acheâ¦
“Any problems, m'lord?”
Sighing, Maggie shifted in her seat and again glanced towardâ¦
“Yoo-hoo! Hello? Are you in some distress?”
James had rather hoped that Maggie would wear herself outâ¦
“My lady, first I wish to say that I doâ¦
Maggie stared out over the gardens. It was a lovelyâ¦
“Lady Barlow,” Lord Ramsey's butler announced, then blinked as heâ¦
Maggie was muttering under her breath. Most of that mutteringâ¦
The day was gray and gloomy, the overcast skies threateningâ¦
Maggie cursed as her hair slid from where she hadâ¦
“Thank you, my lord.” Maggie said, watching Lord Mullin returnâ¦
Maggie placed another stitch in the gown she was workingâ¦
“Iâ¦” Maggie began in an effort to explain herself asâ¦
Maggie chose the chair in the corner of the library.
The words echoed through her head as Margaret touched aâ¦
James moved carefully toward the front of the building andâ¦
“Do you, Lady Margaret Wentworth, take this maâ¦” The restâ¦
London, March 1815
Maggie shifted her feet slightly, trying to ease the ache her cramped position was causing in her legs. The small movement was enough to cause her to bang her knees against the door of the armoire she presently sat in, making it rattle. Wincing at the pain that shot up her leg, Maggie was busily rubbing the appendage when the cupboard door opened and soft candlelight spilled in over her.
“Stop yer banging about, or ye'll be givin' away that ye're in there.”
Ceasing her leg-rubbing, Maggie managed an apologetic smile for the scantily clad young woman glaring in at her. “I am sorry,” she began in conciliatory tones, then paused and heaved out a breath. She straightened
and began to step from the small closet. “No, actually, I am not. Er, Daisy, is it?”
“Maisey,” the girl corrected.
“Yes, wellâ¦Maisey, then,” Maggie said. The girl's put-upon air was irritating, as were the wrinkles that Maggie was futilely trying to brush out of her gown. “This is all really rather silly, and quite beyond the information for which I was looking. All I really wanted was toâ”
The sound of a rap at the door made Maggie pause, alarmed. The young woman before her stiffened, then steel seemed to enter her eyes and she shoved Maggie firmly back into the armoire. Maggie landed on her behind with a grunt.
“It's too late to be changing yer mind now, milady,” she announced, bending to shove Maggie's feet inside the closet before she could regain her balance. “Madame says ye're to watch, and watch you will. Now keep quiet,” she said in a hiss. The door pushed closed with a decided snap.
“Damn,” Maggie said under her breath, then struggled to a sitting position. The door rattled slightly, nearly covering the sound of a bolt being slid home. Pressing one eye to the crack where the doors did not quite meet, she saw Maisey nod with a grunt of satisfaction and whirl away to answer the door. Frowning, Maggie lifted a hand to push experimentally forward, but the door stayed firmly shut. The girl had locked her in!
Well, this is just bloody beautiful
, she thought irritably.
Brilliant! I do tend to get myself into fixes, don't I?
Not that she could have gotten out now, anyway. Maggie considered herself a thoroughly modern young
woman: highly intelligent, independent, and uncaring of what others thought of herâbut only to a certain degree. Even she, thoroughly modern as she was, hesitated to deliberately draw the wrath and scorn of the ton down upon herself. Especially when she merely had to sit quietly for a short time to avoid scandal completely. Patience was not one of her natural virtues, but she had been attempting to cultivate it of late. Yes, she would simply have to look at this as a chance to develop herself. A learning experience, one might say.
She had barely finished that thought when it occurred to her that she was crouching down in a small armoire in one of the rooms of the infamous Madame Dubarry'sâthis was a brothel, for God's sake! What she would learn in this roomâ¦well, she just shouldn't know yet! What was more, she certainly couldn't write about it.
Good Lord, how had she ended up here? Madame Dubarry, of course. The woman had been slow to warm to the idea of allowing Maggie to interview her and some of her girls for a story for the
. Once the madam had agreed to the undertaking, however, she had become quite enthusiastic. The older woman had bustled Maggie from girl to girl, attending the interviews to be sure each girl told the juiciest stories; then she had rounded off this most peculiar day by offering Maggie refreshment in her own private drawing room. It was while the two had chatted over tea that Madame Dubarry devised this harebrained scheme. Clattering her teacup down in its saucer, she had sat up abruptly, her eyes on the clock in the corner.
“What time is it, nearly seven? Oh, really, this is perfect timing! You
witness this, Lady Maggie. Really,
you must. You shall thank me for it, I promise.”
So saying, the woman had stood quickly, grasped Maggie's hand and dragged her from her chair, then hurried from the room and along the hall. Before Maggie could even collect herself enough to ask what she must see and why, they had reached this chamber. Madame Dubarry shoved her inside, installed her in the cupboard with admonishments to remain quiet and see, then had instructed young Maisey that Maggie was to witness the night's proceedings. She had fled the room nearly as hurriedly as she'd ushered Maggie into it.
Maggie, stunned by the abruptness of the event, had remained still and silent for a moment before the cramping of her muscles had forced her to shift positions and draw the wrath of the shapely young Maisey.
Really, had she been a bit quicker, Maggie might have managed to flee the room before Maisey's customer arrived. Now it appeared she was quite stuck. She sighed irritably and tried to ignore the murmur of voices from the room outside. Maggie had no desire to learn anything more than she'd learned in her interviews. And I won't, she assured herself. I simply will not look through the crack to see who Maisey's client is or what they are doing.
She frowned as the voices drew closer. The man's slightly deeper-timbered voice struck a chord of recognition within her. It sounded amazingly likeâ¦
Her gaze slid to the crack despite her best intentions, and Maggie drew her breath in with a hiss. Good Lord, it
him: Pastor Frances. Her eyes narrowed on the man. She had just been discussing the fact that he was paying her court, and that she thought he might soon propose, when Madame Dubarry had rushed her up here.
Maggie was distracted from further thought by an odd question from Maisey.
“Who am I to be tonight, milord? Yer mother?”
Maggie's eyes widened in shocked dismay at that, but they nearly fell out of her head at Frances's answer.
“Nay. Tonight you shall be my dear Margaret.”
“Sweet Lady Wentworth, is it?” Maggie was almost too shocked by Frances's presence to notice the irony in the young prostitute's voice. Almost. “The woman who personifies the very word âlady'? The woman who never sets a foot wrong? Who is discretion herself?”
Maggie couldn't help but wince slightly at the pointy edges of Maisey's words. She also experienced a touch of alarm as she realized that, in her excitement, Madame Dubarry had addressed her by her real name when she'd brought her up to this room.
She forgot all such concerns when Frances answered, “Aye: my sweet Maggie. I have decided to propose to her. I arranged to take her to the Cousins' ball tonight. I shall propose to her afterward. I believe she will accept.”
“Oh, 'course she will, guv'nor, a great, strapping man like yerselfâ¦” There was no missing the irony in Maisey's voice then. At least, Maggie caught it; the gibe seemed to slip right past the rather thin and emaciated Frances.
“Fine. You be Maggie then, and I shall practice on you.” There was a moment of critical silence before he murmured, “You had best put something else on.”
“Well, Maggie would never greet me so scantily clad.”
“Not even if the house were afire,” Maggie agreed
under her breath. Through the crack in the armoire doors, she took in Maisey's costumeâwhat there was of it. Sheer silk and red, it covered absolutely nothing. It was scandalous.
There came a moment of uncertain silence; then Maisey heaved an impatient sigh. “Fine, then. Ye step on out into the hall, and I shall change. Give me five minutes; then knock.”
“Why must I wait in the hall?” Frances whined.
“Well, ye want it to be as if ye were proposing to Lady Wentworth, don't ye? Would she dress in front of ye? Get on with ye. I'll only be a minute, and this will seem more real.”
Through the crack, Maggie saw Maisey usher Frances out of the room as firmly as she herself had been shoved into the armoire. The prostitute closed the door behind the pastor with a snap, then locked it. She was a no-nonsense type of woman, it seemed.
“Thank God.” Maggie burst out of the armoire as Maisey unbolted it. “I thought I should suffocate in there. Now get me out of here.”
“You know where the door is,” came Maisey's unconcerned response. The young woman was digging through her clothing, picking up and discarding gown after gown.
Maggie frowned and glanced from the door to the girl. “I can hardly exit
way. Pastor Frances is out there.”
“Then I guess ye'll just have to get back in the closet, won't ye?” Maisey snapped, discarding yet another gown.
“Get back in?” Maggie was confused. “Did you not let me out to slip me from the room?”
“No. I let you out so I could find a gown suitable enough to play the likes of ye. I could hardly dig about with you sitting in my armoire just waiting to be discovered by the pastor, could I? Damn! I ain't got a single dress as drab as the one ye're wearing.” Throwing her last garment down in disgust, she glared at her as if the lack of wardrobe were somehow Maggie's fault. Then a catty look came over her face. “You wouldn't consider letting me borrow yer gown fer a bit, would ye?”
“Certainly not,” Maggie snapped. She looked desperately around the room. “There simply has to be a way out of here.”
“There isn't,” the girl assured her. “Unless ye can fly out the window.”
“The window!” Maggie hurried over to it, then pushed it open and leaned out. They were on the third floor. The ground was a long way down. She was about to give up on the idea when her gaze dropped to the wall, and she saw a ledge a couple of feet below the window. It was just wide enough that she could walk itâif she were careful.
She would be careful, she decided.
“Here!” Maisey grabbed her arm as Maggie sat on the sill and made to climb out. “What? Are ye daft? Ye'll break yer bones jumpin' from here.”
“I am not going to jump,” Maggie said with a hiss of exasperation, tugging her arm free. “I am going to walk that ledge to the next room, climb in through the window there, and get away.”
Leaning out, Maisey peered down, her eyes widening slightly in surprise. “Ohâ¦well.” The girl hesitated slightly, her gaze calculating; then she announced, “Well, that would be nice, wouldn't it? Except that Lady
X and Lord Hastings are in one of the rooms next door. Yer climbin' in on them would cause the scandal of the decade.”
Maggie frowned at the news. Everyone, absolutely everyone, had heard of the infamous Lady X. She was the most famous of Agatha Dubarry's prostitutes, and as such, Maggie had not been allowed to speak to herâthough she had caught a glimpse of the woman earlier while interviewing the others. From what she had spied, Lady X was a lovely blonde with a perfect figure, full lips, and deep, mysterious eyes. That was all she had seen.
Actually, it was all anyone ever saw. Her face was always covered by a blazing red mask that never came off. Men paid highly for the privilege of bedding her, each trying to discover her true identity, but no one had yet figured it out. It was rumored that the woman was actually a lady of nobility who worked thusly on the side to help shore her sagging family coffers. While many disputed the idea, claiming that surely no lady would risk being discovered in such an endeavor, there were enough men willing to dig deep into their pockets to try to find out, and Madame Dubarry was doing very well.
Maggie definitely did not need the scandal of walking in on the woman while she was entertainingâespecially if she was with Lord Hastings, one of the most distinguished royal councilors.
“Which room are they in?” she asked.
Maisey smiled, the expression of a cat who has cornered a mouse. “Let me use your gown.”
Maggie stiffened, then shook her head. “I shall find out for myself,” she declared. Sliding her legs over onto
the window ledge, she straightened slowly, clinging nervously to the sill as she fought to maintain her balance.
“Have it your way,” Maisey said with amusement, watching. “But it does look a long way down. And I know I shouldn't like to make it all the way along that ledge to a window, simply to have to turn back and travel twice the distance to another.” At Maggie's obvious uncertainty, Maisey pressed her advantage. “'Tis just a gown. I'll give ye one o' me own to wear in its place. Then I'll send yers back to ye first thing on the morrowâonce it's been cleaned.”
Maggie took in the hopeful gaze of the prostitute, peered at the ground such a long way down, then shifted cautiously on the ledge. Her mind was made up by her jumping stomach. Cursing under her breath, she maneuvered back into the room and eyed Maisey unhappily. “The other room is empty, isn't it?”
The prostitute nodded solemnly.
“Fine. Butâ” A tap at the door cut her off, and both women glanced over sharply as the doorknob jiggled.
“Are you ready yet, my dear?” Frances cooed in a sickening tone. Maggie had never heard it from the usually dignified man.
“Oh, keep yer pants on. I'm hurryin' as fast as I can,” Maisey snapped, then grimly turned to Maggie. “Well?”
“Ohâ¦stuff!” Maggie huffed. She set to work disrobing as quickly as she could. Looking pleased, Maisey began to undress as well. The two worked in virtual silence until Maggie got her gown off. She handed it over, then crossed her arms, rubbing them as goose bumps began to form on her flesh.
“Yer shift and bloomers too.”
When Maggie stared at her in dismay, the prostitute rolled her eyes. “I'm supposed to be dressed like you. 'Sides, ye'll be caught fer sure if ye run around with those bloomers showing through my gown.”
Maggie frowned at the transparent garment the girl held out, then shook her head in misery. “I will be recognized anyway if my face is seen. Oh, why did I leave my veil in Madame Dubarry's drawing room?”
Whirling, Maisey hurried to her armoire, returning a moment later with a plain red silk mask for Maggie to wear. “Here; put this on. With the mask, my clothes, and yer cloak, ye should escape all right.”