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The Lass Wore Black Excerpt

“Miss Cameron, are you ill? You’ve grown so pale.”

Mrs. Smythe-Anderson stepped toward Catriona. Her hostess was an older woman, her long, lean face equipped with a pointed chin, aquiline nose, and a series of wrinkles radiating out from her brown eyes like the rays of the sun. Those eyes were now narrowed in concern.

Catriona blinked. She stood in the doorway of the Smythe-Anderson parlor, unable to move. She licked her lips, took a deep breath, and tried to form some type of answer.

Not one word came to mind.

“My dear, come with me,” Mrs. Smythe-Anderson said, leading her out of the dining room. “We’ll find a place where you can compose yourself.”

Please. Dear God, she was going to faint, and she’d never fainted in her life.

“You look pale, as if you’ve seen a ghost,” her hostess said.

Yes, a ghost, that’s what it was. Not a ghost like the ones that fascinated her sister at Ballindair, but a ghost from her past. A substantial ghost who’d stared at her from the doorway with the same shocked recognition.

Dear God, what was Andrew doing here?

“You said your aunt was ill?”

She nodded. Because her hostess was considered a doyenne of society, and this dinner an important introduction to some people, she’d come anyway.

“I do hope it’s not catching,” Mrs. Smythe-Anderson said, leading her up the stairs. “We’ve already lost one guest this evening. Mr. Prender just this minute left. He, too, was suddenly taken ill.”

She halted on the stairs, grabbed the banister and looked up at the older woman.

“He’s gone?”

Mrs. Smythe-Anderson nodded. “Perhaps it’s just as well. Andrew is such a charming man, but I daresay not a good companion for my unmarried female guests.” The other woman leaned down and whispered, “He’s quite a flirt, my dear. He has a reputation that might be considered a trifle risqué, especially for a young girl like you.”

Wordlessly, she followed her hostess to a guest room.

“Would you like me to send your maid to attend to you, my dear?”

“No,” she said. “If I could just sit here for a few minutes, I’m sure I’ll be fine.”

“Of course, but if you want to loosen your clothing, just pull on the bellpull. I’ll alert the staff that your maid might be needed.”

“Thank you,” she said. “You’re very kind.”

“Nonsense,” Mrs. Smythe-Anderson said. “What kind of hostess would I be if I allowed my guests to become ill? I do hope it’s not catching.”

Since smallpox was known to occur in London periodically, she hastened to reassure her hostess. “I’m only feeling a little chilled,” she said. “My aunt has a cold. No doubt that’s all it is.”

A few pleasantries later she was alone in the bedchamber. She walked to the window, parted the curtains and looked out at the rainy night. Was he there? Was he spreading tales, even now, of their liaison?

She could barely breathe and her stomach was in knots.

Tonight, the Duke of Linster had paid court to her. She’d laughed with several people, told stories of her shopping expeditions in London, listened intently to boring discussions of politics. Everyone had smiled at her. She’d been complimented about her dress, her hairstyle, and her smile.

What would the guests say if they knew that the woman at the center of attention, the sister-in-law of an earl, had once been a maid?

Wouldn’t they gossip to know that she was the daughter of a murderer, and that her father had killed his own wife in an act of love? An act that had resulted in him being hanged and she and her sister nearly starving to death?

But most of all they’d all be in a tizzy if they learned that the virginal and chaste Catriona Cameron was anything but, and that she’d bedded Andrew Prender not once but many times.

She should never have come tonight. Why hadn’t she stayed at home? Why had she listened to Aunt Dina and attended this dinner party?

Disaster loomed as sure and certain as the sunrise.

She’d never told Aunt Dina about Andrew. Yet she should have planned for him to be here. London society was smaller than she’d thought, with everyone knowing everyone else.

The better for gossip to spread quickly.

She’d been a fool.

Perhaps he wouldn’t speak because of the affection he’d felt for her. Perhaps he would remain silent for the sake of Morgan, her brother-in-law and once Andrew’s friend. Perhaps they’d even mended their rift after her departure for Edinburgh. Perhaps he was kinder than she thought and didn’t want to destroy her chances in London.

Perhaps the moon would turn purple and birds fly backward, too.

What was she going to do?

She couldn’t hide in this room. She twisted her hands together, released them, and gripped them tightly again. Her stomach was icing over and the back of her tongue felt odd.

He’d been startled to see her. Was that because he’d known her as Catriona MacDonald? She’d gone back to her real name of Cameron after she and her sister decided it was safe enough to use again.

He’d fallen in love with her, something she’d not anticipated. When he offered her a position in London as his mistress, she agreed.

Would he remember that? Or just that last day, when she’d been given another choice by her brother-in-law? A chance to start again, become someone else, Catriona Cameron, the woman she was now. A woman who was being courted by a duke.

What was he going to do? Tales of bedding her would only add to his allure while destroying her.

She walked to the fireplace, pulled the bellpull and went to the door and waited.

The woman who responded was an older, settled sort, with gray hair beneath her cap and a square, matronly shape.

“Would you please tell Mrs. Smythe-Anderson that I’m going home,” she said.

“Yes, miss.”

“Could you send my maid to me?”

“Of course. I’ll also ask that your carriage be brought around.”

She nodded in thanks, walked to the dresser and surveyed herself. She was too pale, and looked decidedly ill. Good, that would explain her haste in leaving.

A few minutes later she and Millicent were tucked into the carriage, her farewells to the rest of the guests being made by her hostess. She wouldn’t get to say good-bye to the Duke of Linster, but mystery never hurt in the chase. The duke had hinted he might join her on her morning ride. To be seen in public with him panting after her would be a great advantage.

Please let Andrew keep silent.

“Was it a good party, then?”

She leveled a stern look at Millicent.

All Aunt Dina’s servants were lacking in decorum. They didn’t know their proper place, witness the girl’s curiosity. She was not going to discuss her evening with a maid.

What would the girl say if she told the truth? Most of the entertainments in London were exceedingly boring and ponderous.

Couldn’t Prince Albert have died a few years ago? The whole of society seemed to be in mourning, even though it had already been months since the man died. Was she supposed to spend all her time in London pretending a downcast air and speaking in a subdued whisper?

After tonight, she might well have to.

“Is the duke still interested, then?” Millicent asked.

She frowned severely at the girl. Were they talking about her in the kitchen? Her campaign to interest the Duke of Linster had been a closely guarded secret, or at least she’d believed so until this moment.

“You’ll not talk about my personal business with other people, Millicent,” she said.

“No, miss.”

“Anything you happen to overhear, or see, for that matter, should never be discussed with another servant.”

“No, miss,” the girl said meekly. She didn’t look the least chastised, however.

Catriona plucked at her loose-sleeved cloak, feeling the material cling damply to her exposed skin. If Aunt Dina had come with her, she would’ve been doubly horrified. How would she have explained Andrew?

How did she explain Andrew?

Aunt Dina knew her as the Countess of Denbleigh’s sister and was ignorant of everything else she’d done.

After patting an errant blond curl back into place, she adjusted the fit of her gloves and smoothed her hand over the cloak that protected her gown.

Her stomach still rolled.

Before she’d seen Andrew, the Duke of Linster had smiled at her. Twice, he’d sidled up to her, and twice she’d moved away. She wanted him to lust after her. After all, lust had proved to be an ally of hers.

Would Andrew say anything?

The duke, although Irish, was her best chance at a titled marriage. Twenty years her senior, he nonetheless considered himself a roué, a word she’d learned from Dina’s whispered warning.

Millicent was snoring.

She didn’t wake the girl. Instead, she bit her lip, turned and raised the leather shade, hoping that the passing scenery would take her mind from Andrew for just a moment.

Fog obscured her view, but at least it was a white, shrinking thing, tendrils floating off into the air like ghost fingers. She didn’t mind the fog at night, but the yellow thickness of it during the day made her feel as if she were wading through soap. More than once she’d had the disconcerting sensation of seeming alone as she made her way to the carriage, yet able to hear the voices of Aunt Dina or her maid.

In this section of London, not only were the streets lit by gas lamps, but some of the shop owners had mounted gaslights behind large bottles of liquid. The result was blurry balls of pink, blue, or green in the shop windows.

As they turned, shadows lingered at a corner. No doubt a beggar stood there, hoping the carriage would stop rather than simply slowing. Another thing about London she’d not expected. Beggars were everywhere, either claiming that they were veterans or impoverished tradesmen. She’d seen whole families, the children dressed neatly, their faces washed, standing next to their parents, hands outstretched. Other beggars had hidden their faces; some had claimed to know no English, while others shuffled right up to her, murmuring about how hungry they were.

She’d starve, too, if she didn’t find a husband.

She couldn’t live forever on her brother-in-law’s generosity. Not when she had her beauty as a tool and passion as a skill. She might have to, however, if Andrew started talking.

Once, she’d had such high hopes for this time in London. But the truth was, she wasn’t all that enamored of the city. London stank. She’d been told it was due to the open cesspools or the sewers that ran to the Thames. At times the breeze carrying the river’s stench was overpowering. On a calm day soot would linger in the air, causing her nose to itch. That, or the ever present odor of horse manure, made any outing hideous.

But inside, too, she was subjected to the most ghastly odors. The corridors in even the most luxuriously appointed home smelled of unwashed servants and cooking. At a ball, the scent of a dozen perfumes was not enough to mask either body odor or bad teeth.

No, Edinburgh smelled a great deal better.

The window suddenly exploded.

The cloud of glass shards illuminated by the carriage lamp looked like yellow diamonds. She had barely registered the sight of them when a protective impulse made her throw up her arms to protect her face.

Too late, however, to save herself.

She felt each separate shard as it sliced into her skin. A surprised gasp of pain accompanied each, along with a surge of terror.

Millicent screamed. The coachman shouted in the distance. Wheels screeched against the cobbles, and horrifyingly, another window shattered.

As the carriage rocked, she blindly reached for the strap above the window. In a motion so slow it felt part of a dream, the carriage rolled, tossing her to the far side of the vehicle in a shower of glass and metal.

Her leg was twisted beneath her, and she pushed against Millicent in panic. The maid was silent, the girl’s composure a lesson. If Millicent could be brave, so could she.

Her face felt heavy, something cold and sharp cutting her. Warm liquid flowed into her eyes and she knew it was blood. She raised a trembling hand and found a large triangle of glass where her cheek should be.

Where was her face? Dear God, where was her face?

Blood was choking her, and she wiped it away from her mouth, her breath coming in heaving gasps.

Her gown, her lovely gown was ruined.

Her face was gone.

 

 

© Karen Ranney 2012