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Unmasked by her Lover
Author: Mary Lancaster

 

Chapter One

 

 

Lady Margaret Winter drew a deep breath, then lifted her hand to the knocker of her family’s townhouse. Before she could make a sound, the door flew open, and Collins, the butler, greeted her with his usual wooden face.

“Good morning, my lady,” he said as she hastened inside. “Their Graces await you in the library.”

She paused, casting an anxious glance at him. From his expression, one would have thought he regularly admitted her to the house unaccompanied before seven o’clock in the morning. But it was certainly not normal for her parents to be awake, let alone out of their bedchambers, at this hour.

“Oh dear,” she murmured. Was there another crisis? She expected Johnny, her eldest brother, had done something else outrageous. Whether or not that would help her own predicament was another matter.

Leaving her valise for Collins to deal with, she hurried upstairs to the library, untying the ribbons of her bonnet as she went. The door was closed, and she could hear her parents’ low voices within. Normally, they didn’t exchange half so many words unless they were quarreling. Which meant they were plotting. Poor Johnny.

She walked in quietly. In truth, she hated to ruin their day further, but this was one trouble she could not deal with alone.

To her surprise, they were seated on either side of the large desk, both half-way through writing letters as they conversed. Their heads jerked around in unison as she entered, and her mother sprang up.

“Meg! Thank God. We have just sent Gibbons and Lawrence to bring you home.”

Gibbons was her mother’s fearsome dresser, Lawrence, the largest of their footmen, but an odd combination under any circumstances. “I must have missed them, but how did you know I needed to come home?”

Her father pushed a newspaper across the table. It wasn’t the sort he usually took. From a distance, it looked more like one of the scandal rags they so despised, and as she drew closer, the words seemed to slap her in the face.

Orgy at C. Place. Connaught Place? From which she and three other young ladies had only just fled?

With dread, she picked up the paper, and her initials leapt out at her, in amongst Hazel Curwen’s, Juliet Lilbourne’s, and Deb Shelby’s. Meg let it fall as though she had been stung.

“How is this even possible?” she burst out. “We have only just left the house, and you are already reading this?”

“Sit down,” growled her father. “Let’s have no histrionics. What truth is there in this filth?”

“Her Highness wasn’t there.”

“So we discovered last night. But you didn’t come home.”

“We didn’t know. We couldn’t find anyone to throw out the revelers.” She frowned. “Who really were vulgar and behaving with extreme license. Even Lord Petely.”

Her mother uttered a moan and sank back into her chair. “Dear God. Petely saw you there?”

“Well, no, I don’t think he was in any condition to see very much,” Meg explained. “But the thing is, we didn’t know the princess had gone. We thought she was in her own apartments.”

Her father stared at her. “With an orgy going on in her house?”

Meg shifted uncomfortably. “Well, we thought she might not notice if she had…company.”

Her mother glared across the table at her husband. “I told you she should not go to that woman!”

“She chose to do it rather than marry, as I recall,” the duke growled. “Meg, this is important. Did anyone lay a finger on you?”

“Oh, no. We locked ourselves in the sitting room until it all quieted…” Meg broke off, frowning. “Which means someone printed that during the night. How did you come by it, Papa?”

“It was delivered,” the duke said bitterly. “Collins saw it and brought it to me at once. You understand what this means?”

“That the world knows I spent the night unchaperoned at an orgy,” Meg said flatly. “I am ruined. We are all ruined.”

“Not necessarily,” her father snapped. “I am not no one, and neither is Cosland. I’ll have the rag retract the story before it’s shut down. But in the meantime, you need the protection of a husband.”

Meg blinked. “Who would have me now?”

“You needn’t say it with such triumph, Meg,” her mother said irritably. “Anyone would think you are glad to be ineligible!”

“Well, I don’t want to be married,” she admitted. “But I would rather have kept my reputation.”

“I cannot imagine,” her father exploded, “why you did not simply come home when you saw what was going on!”

Meg sighed. “We had some idea of protecting Her Highness.”

“Besides, we can’t change that,” her mother said hastily. “We have to work with what did happen, not what should have. And your father is quite right. You have to be married now, to a man of good character and excellent birth.”

“Who doesn’t mind that his wife spent the night at an orgy?”

“Who doesn’t believe his wife spent the night at an orgy,” her mother retorted. “Which you didn’t in any way that matters. So, we have chosen someone who knows you and will be happy to help.”

“Help?” Meg repeated. “Marrying me is a little more than standing up with me at Almack’s!”

“Harry will help,” her mother stated.

“Harry?” Meg said quickly.

“Harry de Vere,” her father said impatiently. “Staunton’s brother.”

“Yes, but Harry is a friend,” Meg objected in sudden panic.

“Who else would marry you?” the duchess demanded. “I am writing to him now, while your father writes to Lord Staunton.”

“But Harry is in France,” Meg said desperately.

“No, he isn’t. He’s in London. He came home last week, recovered from his wounds,” her father said.

“I am asking him to call at eleven,” the duchess added. “So you had better go and change and make yourself more presentable before you breakfast.”

At this unmistakable dismissal, Meg turned helplessly away and walked to her chamber in something of a daze. How could this mess just keep getting worse?

Not that she wouldn’t be pleased to see Harry again. He was one of her oldest friends. They had played together as children, including their siblings, but there had always been a special closeness between her and Harry. Until they had grown up, and he had ruined it all by proposing marriage.

Fortunately, her parents had had no intention then of throwing her away on a mere younger son, so she had never needed to reject him in words. Or even avoid him afterward since he had gone to the Peninsula with his regiment almost immediately. She hadn’t seen him since.

Now, of course, that she was almost on the shelf, and a scandal was about to rage over her, he was suddenly acceptable. Well, for the sake of their old friendship, she would not let him be dragged down.

On the other hand, with the passing of five years, she realized she had been foolish in her old outrage, in her inability to understand any change in their relationship. She hadn’t wanted a lover. She had wanted a friend. For the very good reason that her heart had been given elsewhere. Or she thought it had.

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