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EXCERPT The Harlot Countess

The Harlot Countess

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Chapter 1

Spring, 1809

Silence rippled throughout the ballroom the moment her slipper hit the top step.

Before Lady Margaret Neeley had a chance to ponder this odd reaction, her mother began tugging her down the stairs. Only then did the impending doom become apparent: the way each person avoided her gaze, the hushed tones sallied around the room, dancers paused mid-turn.

And she realized at once that they knew.

They knew.

Somehow, despite her best efforts, stories of what happened the night before had circulated through the streets of London this afternoon. On morning calls, rides in Hyde Park, and promenades down Rotten Row, the ton had spread the tale of what had happened hither and yon.

With Maggie’s younger sister ill today, Mama hadn’t wanted to go on calls. Relieved, Maggie had spent the time drawing, grateful that they hadn’t received any callers. Now it became clear why.

She hadn’t done anything wrong, she wanted to shout. In fact, she had tried very hard during her debut to appear a proper English girl. With the black hair and fiery temper of her Irish father, it had been a constant battle. She neither looked nor acted like all the other girls, and the ton seemed to enjoy casting her in the role of outsider despite that she’d spent most of her life in London.

“Why has everyone gone quiet?” Mama hissed in her ear. “What have you done, Margaret?”

Of course Mama would pick up on the disquiet. Also unsurprising she would place the blame for the uneasiness squarely at Maggie’s feet. Even still, Maggie couldn’t answer. A lump had lodged in her throat and even breathing was a challenge.

Escape, her mind cried. Just run away and pretend this whole evening never happened. But she’d done nothing wrong. Surely someone would believe her. All she had to do was explain what occurred in the Lockheed gardens.

Lifting her chin, she continued down toward the glittering candlelight. Stubbornness had long been a defect in her character, so everyone said. Mama lamented that Maggie would argue long after the point had been made. So she would not turn tail and run, though her stomach had tied itself into knots. No, she would face them, if only to prove she could do it.

When they reached the bottom of the steps, the quiet was deafening. Their hosts did not bustle forth to greet them. Not one of her few friends rushed over to share gossip or compliment her dress. No young buck approached to request a spot on her dance card.

Instead, the crowd swelled backward as if an untamed beast had wandered inside and might run amok at any moment.

“Come,” her mother ordered, taking Maggie’s elbow. “Let us return home.”

“No,” Maggie whispered emphatically. What happened was not her fault, and she would not allow anyone to bully her. Someone would believe—

A blur of blue silk sharpened into the flushed features of Lady Amelia. “I cannot believe you are so foolish as to show your face,” the girl sneered.

Maggie straightened her shoulders and focused on her friend. “Whatever you have heard—”

“He told me. Did you think he wouldn’t? My betrothed confided in me of your…your wickedness, Margaret. You tried to steal him from me but you failed.”

The entire room was now avidly watching and listening to this conversation. Even the orchestra had quieted. “Amelia, why would I—”

“You were always jealous. I’ve had three offers this Season and you haven’t had a one. It comes as no surprise that you would try to steal Mr. Davenport for yourself.” The heir to Viscount Cranford, Mr. Davenport was widely considered the most eligible man in London. He had proposed to Amelia more than a month ago and Maggie had been nothing but pleased for the other girl.

So Maggie ignored her mother’s gasp and kept her eyes trained on Amelia. “You are wrong.”

“Amelia.” Lady Rockland appeared and tugged on her daughter’s arm. “Come away this instance. You will ruin yourself by even speaking to that…” She did not finish, did not add the hateful word before spinning away in a flurry of obvious revulsion. Maggie could well imagine what Lady Rockland had been about to say, however.

Whore. Harlot. Strumpet.

Is that what she’d become in their eyes? It seemed incomprehensible, especially since Mr. Davenport had lied. Maggie had agreed to meet him to, as he said, discuss Amelia. Yet once on the edge of the gardens, it grew apparent the young man had something else in mind. He’d grabbed her, tried to pull her close and put his mouth on her. Ripped her dress. Maggie struck back in the one place it counted on a man and he’d released her. When she hurried back to the house, the couple arriving on the terrace must have drawn their own conclusions about her dishabille.

Mr. Davenport had tricked her. Tried to seduce her. Then he compounded the sin by lying about it to Amelia, one of the few girls Maggie had befriended. The unfairness of it tore at Maggie’s insides. Did no one care for the truth?

As she swept the room with her gaze, the hatred staring back at her made it undeniably clear that the truth did not matter. The ton had passed judgment. She wanted to scream with the unfairness of it. Would no one come to her aid? Surely one of the other unmarried young girls or the man she thought—

More than a little desperately, she searched the room, this time for a tall, blond-haired man. He had been her safe harbor this Season, the one person who truly knew her, who would believe she’d never do anything so reckless. Likely he’d heard what happened by now. So why had Simon not stepped forward to defend her?

There, in the back of the ballroom. Her eyes locked with the brilliant blue gaze she knew so well, a gaze that had sparkled down at her for more nights than she could count. His eyes were not sparkling now, however; they were flat, completely devoid of any emotion whatsoever. A flush slowly spread over his cheeks, almost as if he was…angry or perhaps embarrassed—which made no sense at all.

She clasped her gloved hands together tightly, silently imploring him to come rescue her. Yet he made no move to draw closer. Without glancing away, he raised his champagne glass and drained it.

Hope bloomed when Simon shifted—only to be quashed when he presented her with his back. Simon had…turned away.

No one stirred. No one spoke. The room had crashed to a halt, waiting to see what she would do. Hysteria bubbled up in Maggie’s chest, a portentous weight crushing her lungs.

Dear God. What was to become of her?

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