Miss Emmaline Trent was that thing which all well-born, unmarried ladies strove to avoid at all possible costs. Now, to her credit, she had done all the required things of a good young lady. She had drunk watered ratafia, was never alone with a gentleman with the door closed and, certainly, she had never done anything which would get herself cast out of the good graces of the ton. Yes, Emmaline had followed every rule and expectation set out for her. With a fortune larger than any daughter of a duke, her future had surely been set. But through actions completely beyond Emmaline’s knowledge or power, she had become. Notorious. And Emmaline, unlike most ladies cast into the fiery pits of disgrace, absolutely loved it. There was little question that the immense wealth she had inherited, wealth which might run certain small countries, certainly did not hinder her regard for her ill-gotten status. So many ruined young ladies were forced into pokey cottages or became imprisoned by upper class pimps. Not, Emmaline. For she was a woman of independent thought and means. Two facts which made it quite possible to laugh up her sleeve at the cream of society that had so eagerly thrown her out like a bit of rubbish when scandal’s brush had touched her.
Quite wrongly, as it happened. But even though she had been most horribly slandered, there had been no going back. It mattered not that the Duke of Huntsdown, her formerly intended’s eldest brother, published a full retraction of the nefarious accusations. She’d remained diminished by the event. So, with a little timely encouragement from far more experienced friends, she had decided since she was in for a penny she might as well go entirely in for a pound. And had she ever. Emmaline’s name had become legend in the salons of Paris where they had reveled in the tarnished English Rose who refused to wilt as most flowers would. She’d quickly learned she had a flair for masking and theatrics, something which she never would have known had she remained a good young miss on England’s rainy shore. Private performances of Shakespeare and Molière had thrilled her and her audiences to bits. So, it was after achieving a strange sort of goddess-like status, she had decided to return to the shores of her birth and show how little the disdain of the ton meant to her. Now, she turned slowly on the spot at the center of an elaborate theater just off Covent Garden. Her heart fairly hummed as she took in the gold-painted balconies and the red velvet orchestra seats.
It was a decadent building, like a courtesan who knew her worth and wasn’t afraid to add a little color to her cheeks. A massive chandelier dangled overhead, its crystals winking in the candlelight. It descended from the center of a colorful painting of the seasons and astrological symbols. Gold scrawled over the silk-embroidered walls, and the great, red velvet curtain had been pulled back to reveal the backstage and its bones. It was marvelous. She wanted it. And she was going to buy it. Here, she would do magnificent things. Things that gave her joy. Far more joy than drinking weak ratafia whilst speaking to geriatric inbreds at Almack’s.
There was just one thing that gave her pause in all this decadent glory. It was next to a club as notorious as she. A club owned by a man she loathed from the top of her curled coiffure to the tips of her embroidered slippers. A man who had jilted her right in front of the priest with a few choice words she could barely force herself to recall without shivering. Lord Edward Hart was a bastard in action if not by birth, and it was tempting to avoid him entirely. But that was the sort of thing the old Emmaline would have done. The new Emmaline had very different ideas about how to proceed and none of them included behaving as a lady should. She took a step towards the actress, Mrs. Barton, a magnificently beautiful woman who had befriended her in arguably the darkest time of her young life. “Shall we do Shakespeare first?” Mrs.
Barton’s rouged lips curved. “Oh, yes. You shall take it?” Emmaline swept her gaze around the sumptuous building that seemed to whisper with promises of future stories. “Oh, yes.” “And your neighbor?” Mrs. Barton queried, cocking her head to the side which caused her dark curls to dance. “You won’t be able to avoid him. Not entirely.” “Never fear.” Emmaline waggled her brows, drawing herself up, anticipating a forthcoming battle.
“I shall make good work of him if he darkens my door. No doubt, I shall enjoy it very much.” Mrs. Barton tsked, waving a ruby, leather-gloved hand. “He’s not the boy you remember.” “Thank goodness.” Emmaline shrugged, wishing she could appear as if Edward Hart gave her little pause. But despite her wish, her deuced heart still ached over the loss of the love she’d thought was hers. “It would be very sad if he’d been entirely unaltered by his actions.” “Oh, he is altered,” Mrs.
Barton drawled. Emmaline eyed her older friend. Mrs. Barton had always been merry and mischievous. But now there was a certain glint in her eyes which did the most alarming thing to Emmaline’s insides. It intrigued her. “You don’t like him, do you?” “Like him?” Mrs. Barton echoed before she let out a rich laugh. “No, dear. No.
I wouldn’t say that.” Emmaline nodded. “He’s an absolute ponce. I shan’t argue it.” Mrs. Barton merely smiled. “If you say so.” “He betrayed me,” Emmaline pointed out, mystified by Mrs. Barton’s behavior. “So he did,” Mrs.
Barton agreed adamantly, yet she didn’t look suitably upset as she sashayed down the center of the theater, running her gloved hand along the gilded seats. Rather, she appeared a trifle amused as she all but bounced as she went along. “In the end,” Mrs. Barton said over her shoulder with a wicked smile, “aren’t you glad? If he had not, you would be Lady Emmaline Hart, wife of the brother of the Duke of Huntsdown.” Emmaline sighed. “I have already considered that. How boring my life should have been.” “Would you have been happier?” Mrs. Barton inquired with what appeared to be genuine curiosity. Shrugging, Emmaline began to slowly back up the center aisle towards the corridors, eager to seek out the man responsible for the sale of the establishment.
“It is impossible to know. They do say ignorance is bliss.” “You seem rather blissful now and there isn’t an ignorant bone in your body,” Mrs. Barton pointed out. No. There wasn’t. Of that, she had made certain. That day in the church when Edward had condemned her so vilely had been the worst day of her life. She’d died that day, the old Emmaline had slipped away like a consumptive, and then, miraculously, she’d been reborn. Mrs.
Barton turned, then took several pointed steps back up the aisle. “Will you seek him out?” Emmaline’s lips quirked, unable to contain her sudden rather strange sense of anticipation. “Oh, yes. I shall not let our encounter be at random. Though it doesn’t paint me in the best of light, I cannot wait to witness his face when he sees me as I am now.” Mrs. Barton eyed her up and down, taking in the stylish cut of Emmaline’s clothes which no country-born lady could even dream of. “No doubt, he shall be rendered speechless.” “Edward?” Emmaline scoffed. “I doubt that.
Whilst I look forward to showing him I am unconquered, I’m sure he will be delighted to be vindicated in his slander of me. He called me a whore once when it wasn’t true. I imagine it shall make him feel much relieved that he can besmirch my character now so accurately.” “But your fall was his fault,” Mrs. Barton replied. Emmaline nibbled her lower lip, having contemplated this many times. “I don’t know. For once I fell, I embraced it. I would not be driven off to a rotting, drafty cottage in the wilds of nowhere to live out my life alone and derided. No, I chose to revel in my circumstance and so I thrived.
Perhaps, I was always destined to fall.” “It is what I most admire about you, your sense of adventure,” Mrs. Barton enthused. “It is hard to believe you used to be such a lamb.” “My cousin, Harriet, would have said a sheep,” Emmaline corrected, feeling a spasm of longing for the cousin she had not seen in so long. She cleared her throat, determined not to let such a thing sadden her now. Oh, no. She would not allow melancholy or regret to ferret into her heart. Such was the way of taking to one’s bed. “And she was right,” Emmaline added forcefully.
“I do look forward to seeing her again. Even her husband, Edward’s brother, who seems to have come up to snuff despite his bloodline.” Once, she’d been so angelic, so perfect. Now, she thrilled at her own lack of perfection and all that the world had to offer. It was a far more interesting place than the pale drawing rooms she’d been required to inhabit before. Now, she was a fallen woman in every way and, in the great strange manner of society, she was now. Dare she say, a celebrity? For though she was not allowed in the hallowed halls of Almack’s, she was allowed in more halls of power than most women. For she was not a lady. And she never would be again.