Unmasked By Her Lover – Mary Lancaster

LADY MARGARET WİNTER 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.

She had not communicated with him in those years, although with the news of battles, she had always scoured the Gazette for word of him. She had been proud of his mentions in dispatches and appalled by talk of his injuries at Toulouse. And now he was home and recovered, thank God. Harry, her friend. As she gazed into the glass in her chamber, she saw instead his face, the mischievous boy with the engaging smile and floppy, dark blond hair, the smart young hussar so proud of his uniform, so desperate for life and adventure. Her friend. He might well help her… Either way, she would not be so mean as to marry him. However, it was clear she did need to get out of London. For even if she refused Harry, or induced him not to offer for her in the first place, it would not be long before her furious parents found someone else considerably less congenial who, no doubt, owed her important father a favor. Unthinkable to be married for such a reason.

She paid no attention to how the maid dressed her or pinned her hair, though when she met her mother in the breakfast parlor, the duchess deigned to approve her, even patted her hand in a comforting sort of way. “You will do,” she murmured. For what? Meg wondered wryly. A ruined bride? After breakfast, she fetched a novel she was halfway through and her largest reticule into which she stuffed a comb, toothbrush, and tooth powder. Then, she slipped downstairs to the reception room closest to the front door. From the window seat, she would be able to see Harry arrive and get to him first. It was not a day to concentrate on reading. Instead, the book lay open and ignored in her lap while her mind dwelled on the note that had tricked her and the other ladies into attending the absent princess yesterday. Who would have done such a thing, and why? Could it truly have been an administrative mistake? Or a mischievous prank, perhaps, perpetrated by one of the luckier ladies who had, presumably, accompanied Her Highness on her travels? No one, surely, could have guessed how the princess’s hospitality would be abused by friend and stranger alike until it degenerated into the wild party she and the others had locked themselves away from. They had been stupid.

They should have known neither Her Highness nor Sir Joseph or whomever else they had imagined she was with could have ignored the racket for so long. Footsteps in the street distracted her yet again, but this time the young man sauntering along the road wore the red and gold uniform of a hussar. And he did look familiar. Tall and lean, almost lanky, he moved with a slightly halting step that was still somehow graceful and self-confident. His hip had been injured at Toulouse. He carried his hat under his arm, and his dark blond hair, a little too long, blew around his face in the breeze. An involuntary smile sprang to her lips. The years fell away, and she knew in her heart he was still the Harry she remembered, still her friend. He turned up the front steps, and a second later, she heard the rap of the knocker. She hurried across the room and into the entrance hall where the porter was just admitting him.

“Harry!” she hissed to get his attention, and then to the porter and the hovering footman. “It’s fine. I shall take him up.” Harry stared at her in understandable surprise. “Meg?” Pleased he could still tell her from her twin—even with slightly less confidence than in the past— she smiled and beckoned. “Quickly, in here before Their Graces realize you’ve arrived.” He didn’t hesitate but walked toward her. She led him into the reception room and spun around to face him. Oh, yes, he was still recognizably Harry, though she didn’t remember him being quite so… imposing. There was a new…hardness about him.

She discerned lines she didn’t recall about his eyes and mouth. His skin was bronzed by the sun, which rather suited him. From an engaging youth, he had become an undeniably attractive man. Yet somewhere in the last five years, he had learned to hide what he was thinking. His once open blue-grey eyes were amiable but opaque, and she struggled to find there the carefree youth she had known. On the other hand, she saw no obvious scars or injury beyond his slight limp. “You look well,” she said in relief. “I’m glad.” “I’m glad you’re glad,” he said flippantly. He made no move to come closer.

“And I am delighted to return the compliment. Why are we hiding in here?” His voice had changed slightly, too, deepened, his speech more clipped and definite. A man used to command. Covering her sudden nervousness, she said hastily, “Because I have to warn you. My parents will try and pressure you into offering for me, but on no account must you do so.” A smile flickered across his firm lips. Encouraged, she sat on the sofa and patted the place next to her. “I’m in trouble, Harry.” “Of course you are. When were you not?” He sat beside her, stretching one leg straight out in front of him as though easing it.

“This time, it is truly not my fault,” she said earnestly. “At least, I don’t think it is. I had a place in the Princess of Wales’s household and was summoned to duty last night. Only there was a horrible party going on, and we locked ourselves in the sitting room until they all went away or fell asleep. And then we discovered the princess had never been there. We’d spent the entire night in that house unchaperoned. And the story is in some vile rag of a newspaper. So, you see, I am ruined.” A frown deepened the creases on his brow. “I should have thought His Grace the man to fix that,” he observed.

“Oh, he plans to, largely by making you marry me.” His gaze remained steady on her face. “Calm your terrors. I have no intention of offering for you.” Of course, he did not, and naturally, she was relieved to hear it. Only some other wayward emotion bothered her. Pique? Hurt? Surely not. “No indeed,” she agreed. “And I have a much better plan, and I know Papa will never allow it.” “I’m not going to like it, either, am I?” She smiled.

“It’s better than marrying me. Would you object very much to driving me to my sister at Calvert Court?” “No, but what good would it do you?” “Martha could say I was always there, and so I couldn’t possibly have been in Connaught Place.” Harry appeared to consider. “It’s a good plan. I can’t quite understand why His Grace doesn’t send you there post-haste.” “I think he would rather brazen it out, marry me to someone respectable while he forces the newspaper to retract. He imagines we would all be safer if I were married.” “You don’t agree?” “I’ve never wanted to be married.” “That isn’t true.” She flushed.

“If you mean Calvert, I was glad in the end he chose Martha over me. I have quite forgiven them both for seeing them together. I know I should have hated to be married to him. In fact, I would make anyone a shockingly bad wife, so I decided years ago simply not to marry. So, will you take me to Calvert Court, Harry?” He regarded her. “If I don’t, you will just hire a post chase, won’t you?” “Or go on the stagecoach.” “So, when would you expect me to go? After I’ve spoken to your parents?” “Lord, no,” she exclaimed. “They would only stop us. No, we must go now.” He blinked.

“I walked from Staunton House.” “I was hoping you had a curricle or some other conveyance you could drive yourself,” she confided. “I suppose I could steal—er…borrow Robert’s.” And suddenly, it was just like being children again, up to mischief, and she could pretend the adult fear of a ruined reputation didn’t matter. She couldn’t help smiling as she jumped to her feet and impulsively threw out her hand to him. “Then let us be off before my parents notice!” He held her gaze for a moment. She had no idea what he was thinking. Then, slowly, he reached up, took her hand, and rose to his feet. His fingers felt rough and strong, no longer a boy’s. Strange and unfamiliar, like the man himself.

But this was Harry, and she knew now all would be well.


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