The Accidental Mistress – Merry Farmer

The Disaster” occurred within ten minutes of Miss Verity Barnes and her sister, Miss Honor Barnes, stepping through the doors into Almack’s Assembly Rooms. Vouchers for Almack’s were next to impossible to come by, particularly for the wallflower halfsisters of a mere baron, but admittance to the hallowed halls was as close to admittance to Society—with a capital S—as was possible. The only hope Verity had of making a marriage that would ensure her future among London’s elite was by dazzling at Almack’s, catching the eye of a distinguished nobleman, and charming him into falling in love. Which was why it was a complete catastrophe that the musicians would stop playing and the crowd of eager guests would suddenly reach a lull in their conversation at the precise moment that Verity—anxious about whether her twin sister would hear her over the din—raised her voice to say, “Isn’t Lady Charlotte Grey Lord Landsbury’s mistress?” The sudden silence deepened. An enormous, doughy lady wearing too much powder gasped. An elderly gentleman coughed. The dangerously handsome man standing beside Lady Charlotte made a sound halfway between a snort and a laugh as he raised a closed hand to his mouth. Lady Charlotte herself turned bright puce, her eyes going wide in furious indignation. And beside Verity, her hostess and chaperone for the evening, her sister-in-law’s mother, Lady Atwell, groaned and said, “I knew this would be a disaster.” All Verity could do was stand there with her mouth hanging open, her face burning with embarrassment. She hadn’t meant the comment to come out the way it had. She hadn’t meant for it to come out at all. It was just that the moment she and Honor stepped into the room, arm’s linked, hopes high, the grandeur of the moment had overwhelmed her and the array of the ton’s most prized members had engrossed her. Almack’s was the epitome of class and distinction. The chance she and Honor had been given by being granted Strangers Tickets as guests of Lady Atwell and her sister, Lady Pickering, was one that few women of their marginal station were granted.

This one night was their grand attempt to leave behind the anxious uncertainty of the position their father had left them in upon his death two years ago. Verity and Honor were the beloved daughters of Lord Richard Halesworth’s second wife, who was no one of consequence herself. And while their half-brother, George, the current Baron of Halesworth, had agreed to keep them in his house and provide for them in the wake of their father’s passing, George’s wife, Anne, was anxious for Verity, Honor, and their younger sister, Sophie, to either marry or retire to a quiet life in the Norfolk countryside with their widowed mother. Verity had no intention of retiring to a quiet life. She loved London too much. But neither had she been remotely impressed with the meager marital prospects that had presented themselves to her and her sisters. And yet, The Disaster was not the alternative path she’d had in mind. The sudden lull should have come when Verity commented to Honor about the gorgeous gown Countess Cowper was wearing, or when Honor commented back that the men present looked dazzling in their knee-breeches and white cravats. It could even have come as they wondered aloud about refreshments or expressed their gratitude that they’d been granted Strangers Tickets. But no, it had to come at the precise moment Verity implied Lady Charlotte, a woman she barely knew, was of ill-repute.

“I beg your pardon?” Lady Charlotte snapped in a voice that was taut with offense. “What did you suggest I am?” Verity’s heart sank to her slippers. “I’m terribly sorry, Lady Charlotte. It was simply a question based on a rumor I thought I heard. Perhaps I was mistaken.” “A rumor?” Lady Charlotte’s voice pitched even higher. “That is to say,” Verity rushed on, “something I thought perhaps I overheard. Perhaps it isn’t true at all.” “Perhaps it isn’t true?” Fury began to overtake shock in Lady Charlotte’s expression. “I would never dream of spreading any sort of malicious gossip about a lady as highly esteemed and well-placed as you, my lady,” Verity went on, feeling as though her tongue were a runaway carriage without brakes.

Lady Charlotte tilted her head up and stared down her long nose at Verity. “I should say not. I have never been so insulted in my life.” “What seems to be the trouble here?” Verity’s heart sank so low that it felt as though it was on the verge of dissolving into a pile of mud as the Countess of Sefton, one of Almack’s lady patronesses and a veritable goddess of the ton approached the ruinous scene. “I’m terribly sorry, your ladyship,” Verity said, stumbling through her words. “There seems to be a misunderstanding about—” She didn’t get any further. The countess’s eyes went wide in offense as Verity addressed her. It was only then that Verity realized she hadn’t been formally introduced to the countess. Society-with-a-capital-S was nothing if not militant about propriety and formality. “Who is this woman?” the Countess of Sefton asked.

“She is my daughter’s sister-in-law, Miss Verity Barnes,” Lady Atwell answered in a meek, withered voice—as if she might need smelling salts at any moment. “And the other is her twin, Miss Honor Barnes.” “I see.” The countess sniffed and studied Verity and Honor. Verity could tell the two of them were coming up wanting. A blind man could have seen that. “The comment was innocently met, I’m sure,” the man standing with Lady Charlotte— none other than Lord Landsbury himself—said. His mouth twitched as though he were having a hard time not grinning, and laugh lines radiated from his dark eyes. He went on to say, “I for one, found the comment charming.” He sent a teasing look Lady Charlotte’s way.

Lady Charlotte huffed with impatience and shook her head. “You would. I, however, do not.” “I thought you were beyond eager to make it known there is a connection between us,” Lord Landsbury went on, his eyes dancing with mirth. Lady Charlotte gaped at him, turning her fury his way. “I would thank you not to make the situation worse, my lord.” “How could it possibly be worse,” Lord Landsbury said in a drawl, sending a cheeky, sidelong glance to Verity. Verity’s squashed heart jumped at the look, and the aching discomfort of the moment seemed to coalesce in a different spot within her person entirely. One she shouldn’t be thinking about at Almack’s. If her cheeks weren’t already hot with shame, they would have blazed at that look.

Lady Charlotte seemed to notice the entire exchange. Her back went ramrod straight, and she clenched her fists at her sides. “I do not know who this pitiful upstart thinks she is or who admitted her to an establishment as esteemed as this, but I demand she be shown the door at once.” She turned just far enough away from Verity to make it clear she would refuse to acknowledge Verity’s existence for a moment longer. “Come now, Lady Charlotte,” Lord Landsbury said. “You don’t think that a chit like this is any sort of competition for you, do you?” “Chit?” Verity barked before she could think better of it. “Competition?” Lady Charlotte snapped in indignation. “I should say not.” She turned her back further on Verity. Lord Landsbury started chuckling outright at the situation.

“It seems you’ve had a bit of an unfortunate entrée into society, Miss Barnes,” he said. Verity’s eyes went wide over the fact that he’d remembered her name. “It was an accident, I can assure you,” she managed to squeak out. “Accident indeed,” Lady Charlotte huffed, darting a venomous look Verity’s way. “If my reputation suffers due to the clumsy slander of a feckless nobody, I can assure you that I will bring a suit against you.” “I cannot tell you how sorry I am, my lady,” Verity said, beside herself with misery. She could see her future, and the futures of her sisters, slipping through her fingers like so many grains of sand as Lady Charlotte faced away from her and several of the onlookers did the same. “Believe me, I meant nothing by my silly, ill-advised comments.” Lady Charlotte did not reply. Several of the onlookers walked away muttering about disgraceful manners and the laxity of those who were supposed to screen guests.

“Lady Atwell,” the Countess of Sefton said, clearing her throat. “I suggest that you escort your guests to the door.” Verity hung her head in shame. But the situation had only just begun to reach its lowest point. “Guests?” Lady Atwell said, blinking and looking this way and that as though searching for someone. “I do not recall bringing guests this evening.” “But Lady Atwell,” Honor began, opening her mouth for the first time since The Disaster began. Verity held out a hand to stop her, shaking her head. It was over. The night, and their hope for any sort of foothold in Society, was done.

Without another word, Verity grabbed Honor’s hand and made as swift a retreat from the assembly room as she could. She rushed Honor into the hall, where they retrieved their wraps, then on to the door. She and Honor were intrepid and would be able to find their way home on their own. George’s house in Mayfair was within walking distance, if they failed to hail a hansom cab and were forced to walk, and since their reputations were already in tatters, as long as they walked swiftly, it couldn’t get any worse. Just before slipping out the door, Verity glanced over her shoulder at the grand assembly room. Lord Landsbury stood there, watching them with an expression that now bore equal parts regret and amusement. Verity scowled at him, tilting her chin up to show strength. She may have been irreparably ruined in the eyes of anyone who mattered in London, but she was determined to show the irascible lord that she would not be defeated by life. Although it didn’t help her nerves when Lord Landsbury raised the punch glass he was holding to salute her. The gesture was so cheeky that she tripped over her own shoes, crashing into Honor, who only barely managed to keep the both of them from tumbling, head over heels, out the door and into the chilly night.

The blasted man was too attractive for his own good. It was an astounding bit of luck that the Almack’s attendant posted in front of the building hailed one of the waiting hansom cabs and helped Verity and Honor into it before word of The Disaster leaked out and made him unwilling to help. As soon as Verity called out George’s address to the driver and the carriage lurched into motion, she flopped back against the shabbily upholstered seat and groaned. “We’re ruined,” she said, hiding her face in her hands. She was too stunned by the turn of events to cry, but her soul was wailing. “I should have said something,” Honor said. “I should have come to your aid in some way, but I was terrified.” “It’s not your fault,” Verity assured her, reaching for her hand and squeezing it. “If you’d said anything, it would only have drawn you into the heart of the maelstrom.” “Perhaps, but I am so ashamed of myself for simply standing there like a dead fish, doing and saying nothing,” Honor insisted.

“You’re my sister. I should defend you to the death.” “It wouldn’t have done any good,” Verity sighed. “I can’t help but think we were damned before we set one foot inside the assembly room.” “Do you think so?” Honor asked, sliding closer to her on the seat and hugging her for comfort. “Unfortunately, I do.” Verity shook her head, playing with the strings of her reticule. “I suppose it’s safe to speak this aloud, now that we’re banned from Society in all its glory for good—” “Do you think we are?” Honor interrupted. “Oh, yes,” Verity said in a dire voice. “Lady Charlotte wasn’t the only one who turned her back on us.

The Countess of Sefton gave us the cut direct in front of half the ton. We have been well and truly turned out of London society.” “Papa would have been furious with them,” Honor said. “Papa isn’t here to make things right,” Verity said, wilting. “And George can barely be bothered with us as it is.” The two of them sat in gloomy silence as the cab bounced away from Almack’s, hope, and respectability, and into the dark unknown. Verity could see that traffic in the busy, London streets would be a problem and was unsurprised when the driver called down that he would be forced to take an alternative route to avoid a carriage that had broken down. “So I suppose it’s Norfolk then,” Honor said after they’d wallowed in their misery for several silent minutes. “Mama will be pleased to have us.” “Norfolk,” Verity groaned.

“I don’t think I could stand it. London is my home.” “Mine as well,” Honor sighed, squeezing her hand. “I think I might go mad if we are barred from ever entering a theater again,” Verity said. “Or denied easy access to shops,” Honor agreed. “Or separated from our friends.” “Do you suppose we will have any friends after this?” Honor asked. “Surely, our true friends will continue to know us,” Verity said, then frowned. “Though if word of this evening spreads the way I fear it will, we should expect to be cut by other acquaintances.” Honor frowned.

“It seems bitterly unfair that the lives of so many should be so intensely controlled by the opinion of so few.” It was as if her sister had spoken the truth Verity had long wondered about in her heart. “I agree.” She sat straighter. “Why should our future happiness and our prospects for a comfortable life be determined by a handful of spiteful women? Women who can’t even recognize a foolish mistake for what it is.” “I’ve long thought the ton to be a pack of judges and executioners just waiting to lop off the heads of young women like us,” Honor confided in a whisper. “Why should only those of wealth and rank be happy?” “Precisely,” Verity agreed, feeling better already. “One does not need a title to be filled with joy at the sight of the first rose in spring. Nor does one need a voucher to Almack’s to find love.” “I think we would have an equal chance of being happy in the arms of a clerk as we would in those of a duke,” Honor said.

“I agree.” Verity nodded. “Why, Aunt Louisa married a ship’s captain in Norwich, and I can’t think of a woman who is more pleased with her lot in life.” Verity’s comment was punctuated by a rich peal of feminine laughter just outside of the cab. They had stopped near a theater, presumably to wait for traffic to clear after the night’s entertainment had let out. Verity peeked out the window and spotted a woman dressed in rich, red velvet with feathers in her hair and glittering jewels around her neck and wrists. “Is that Mrs. Clawton?” Honor whispered, leaning over her shoulder to look as well. “It is,” Verity whispered back, studying the woman. Mrs.

Clawton wasn’t much older than them. She was perhaps thirty. The bodice of her fine gown was cut very low indeed, exposing a shocking amount of her ample bosom. She wore a touch of rouge on her lips as well. Her gown exposed more of her shape than it hid, and several of the gentlemen exiting the theater or passing by gave her lingering, appreciative looks—none more so than the older gentleman who’s arm she held. “That’s Lord Tolliver,” Honor whispered. “Mariah’s father.” “I know,” Verity whispered back. “It looks as though Mrs. Clawton is still his mistress,” Honor said.

“I think she must be,” Verity answered. “Mariah says they’re devoted to one another.” The cab moved on, but Verity continued to study Mrs. Clawton out the window. She wasn’t particularly beautiful, although she did have something carefree and bold about her that was attractive. Her and Honor’s friend, Mariah, had revealed the whole story about how her father had taken a mistress, and how Mrs. Clawton was far more interesting than her own mother. Mariah had hinted that Mrs. Clawton had been quite free with information that young women destined for respectable society were forbidden to know. The cab moved slowly, giving Verity a chance to study more of the crowd leaving the theater.

There were half a dozen or more women like Mrs. Clawton on the arms of rich and powerful men, where everyone could see them. They all had a certain luminescence about them. And while Verity wasn’t blind to the respectable ladies who turned up their noses at them, each and every one of the disreputable mistresses and courtesans were smiling as if they’d discovered a secret the ton didn’t know. Verity sat back in the cab as it turned the corner and picked up speed. She glanced down at her chest and the much more modest gown she wore. In a sudden burst of inspiration, she tugged the outdated fichu she wore from her bodice, then scooped her hands into her bodice to lift her breasts to the point of peeking indecently from the top of her neckline. “What are you doing?” Honor asked. “I just wanted to see,” Verity said, letting her thought linger. She thrust her chest out.

“Yes, I think I could be bold enough to walk around in public like this.” “With any and every man you come across staring at you with interest?” Honor asked. Verity shrugged. “Why not? My reputation is already ruined.” She grinned, grabbing her skirt and lifting it to expose her ankles. “It feels rather exciting to be naughty.” Honor sent her a flat look. “You’re in a closed cab with only me looking at you,” she said. “I’m your sister. We shared a bed until we were sixteen.

” “I know,” Verity said. “But think of what just happened. Think of what we’ve just seen.” “I don’t think I’ll ever be able to stop thinking about it,” Honor said grimly. “Which is precisely my point,” Verity said. “The Disaster can never be undone. Our reputations are thoroughly ruined. I doubt anything will salvage them. Neither of us—nor Sophie, I’m afraid—will ever make a good marriage now. Which means we have choices in front of us.

Do we run away with our tails between our legs, living out the rest of our lives in boring obscurity in Norfolk or do we make the best of a wretched situation using the tools at our disposal and continue to live lively, interesting lives in the only place we’ve ever called home?” Honor bit her lip but didn’t say anything. Verity could tell she wasn’t convinced. The cab pulled to a stop in front of their brother’s house and jostled as the driver hopped down. “Here,” Verity said. “Here is the test. You asked if I would be able to go out in public like this, with every man staring at me lustfully.” “I did,” Honor admitted. “Well, here’s my chance to see how it feels.” She tugged her skirt up above her knees, exposing the garters that held her stockings up, just as the driver opened the door. Her heart kicked against her ribs and a strange sort of excitement filled her as he reached in to offer his hand.

She scooted to the edge of the seat, thrust her chest out, and took the man’s hand. “Thank you, sir,” she said, extending a mostly-bared leg to the step. The driver’s eyes popped wide, just as Verity thought they would. He raked her with a glance that was utterly inappropriate for a man of his station and a woman of hers, but she attempted to move in a way that would encourage his gaze. She was clumsy about it, of course, seeing as she had no practice whatsoever in moving seductively, but the driver didn’t seem to mind. “Oh, dear,” she gasped as she stumbled out of the carriage and straight into the man’s arms. The man stared intimately at her breasts. It was just her luck that one of the nipples had popped free of her neckline. “How much do I owe you for the ride?” Verity asked, sensing Honor slipping out of the cab behind her. “I tell you what,” the driver said, his expression shifted to a lopsided grin.

He moved a hand boldly to cup her mostly exposed breast, lifting it out of her bodice entirely and pinching her nipple. Verity gasped. She should be terrified of the liberty the man was taking and scream bloody murder, but after the evening she’d had, with her head already swimming with oddities and her future destroyed, all she felt was an oddly pleasant heat forming between her legs. That heat throbbed as the driver scooped her other breast from her bodice and rubbed his thumb over that nipple until it was as hard as its twin. He chuckled to himself as he squeezed and played with her breasts. Finally, after the most titillating thirty seconds of Verity’s life, he let her go with a sigh. “No charge tonight, miss,” he said, humor in his voice. “I’ve never fondled a finer set of tits in me life.” He touched the brim of his hat as Verity stood there, her brow raised in surprise, her breasts still fully exposed, and edged back toward the front of the cab. “You let me know if you want another ride in the future,” he said, then grabbed his trousers in a lewd gesture.

Verity stood where she was for a moment, stunned. The driver hopped back up onto the seat of the cab. Honor hissed a wordless whisper behind her. As the driver pulled away, Verity burst into laughter. She peeked over her shoulder at her sister, then quickly tucked her breasts back into her bodice, wrapping her fichu around her neck for good measure, before dashing with Honor up to the house. “Yes,” she giggled as they waited for the butler after ringing the doorbell. “I think I could be quite debauched, if I put my mind to it.”

.

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