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It seemed a perfectly innocent night when Rose Clairmont discovered the truly shocking nature of London’s inhabitants and how quickly one could fall from grace. If one was at a place of grace to start with that is.
The sweet smell of spring lay heavy in the air, damp and intoxicating. She couldn’t help but breathe it all in as she waited in the dark behind a dense shrub in her parents’ garden. Nights like these weren’t meant for nefarious activities. It should have been pitch-black and stormy; the skirts of her ridiculous gown should have blown all about and perhaps rain would dampen her hair to cling, wet and cold to her cheeks.
Instead, the warm evening made for an even warmer ballroom crush. Despite the fact her very overdue come-out shouldn’t have even been at the bottom of the ton’s entertainments that night, her mother knew how to throw a party and it seemed all of London had turned out to sample the champagne, delicate pastries and fashionable sweet cakes.
The gown Rose had been stuffed into was suffocating and heavy, with layers and layers of white skirts trimmed with pale yellow ribbons and yards of puffy lace. Her mother’s attempts at hiding her youngest daughter’s ungainly figure resulted in an evening gown that very closely resembled the dramatically high meringue atop the lemon tarts on the refreshment table. She had heard mumbles of delight and groans of rapture over those tarts. Only groans of a painful nature and titters about the Earl of Clairmont’s poor, fat daughter had reached her ears even though she looked like one of those sweet dessert treats.
Society was, for the most part, an arsehole, she decided, not in the least bit ladylike in her mind.
But Rose did certainly appear to have sampled all of the sweet treats life had to offer. She felt so incredibly ridiculous. She felt hindered and closed-in. The only reason she had acquiesced to the ball at all was because her best friend was in trouble and had asked her to go to London to meet a secret contact. To pass along a note of the utmost importance.
All very exciting and very dangerous. Her heart soared.
Rose’s parents pressuring her to come to the capital where they spent most of the year had actually been well timed. Her brothers and sisters were there as well as most of the household staff. So many bodies under the one roof guaranteed she was ignored here as well. Rose’s figure, along with her inability to play the pianoforte or carry a tune, made her father wince each time he laid eyes upon her, which meant she had been able to remain at the estate in Dover with a handful of faithful retainers for years. After all, when one had four much older siblings, one could take pride in them and forget the youngest existed at all. She had thought she’d been forgotten entirely until that first summons came from her mother. By the time the third arrived, along with a threat from her father, she and her friend had come up with a plan of action but one of them had to travel to London to deliver the blasted note.
She wished she had stayed forgotten as she tried for the hundredth time to press down the layers of skirts so they didn’t appear so full. Her partner in crime had insisted the danger would be too high for a lady and that he should be the one to make the journey. But as a mere stable lad, he would be missed from the Ashmoor estate and the large village in between. Michael could hardly travel with her. He would be turned out without thought if her father or the Duke of Ashmoor suspected they were more than lady and servant. Far too many questions would be asked. Many more lies would need to be told.
Rose almost snorted. She was hardly a lady anyway. Not on the inside. Not even on the outside despite the gown and the party.
The breaking of a twig nearby and the crunch of gravel gave her hope that her part in the charade was almost upon her but then a door opened on the terrace above her hiding place. Light fell on the shrubs and flowers before her. The lilting sounds of a waltz met her ears, followed by the slamming of the door and then the quiet descended once again. But only for a moment.
She continued to hold her breath as heavy footfalls sounded a furious pacing. A curse was muttered only a short distance from her head but she couldn’t duck down any further, nor could she exit the area without being noticed. A sigh, another oath, more footsteps as the stranger seemed to head back towards the ballroom.
Rose wasn’t as terrified of being seen as she was of missing the contact she was to pass the letter to. Michael had told her the man was a member of the ton, a man not to ever be fully trusted, a man he sought to help them from the trouble that had found them back in Dover.
Breathing as quietly as she could, Rose peered into the darkness beyond the gravel path but whoever was there had been frightened away by the newcomer on the terrace above. Blast it all. She’d had only one chance and now it was gone. How could she go home to Hell’s Gate and explain to Michael that she had failed him? That she had also failed her people and practically opened the door for a wolf to stride on in without resistance. There was nothing else for it, she would have to go after the contact and run him to ground. Michael had trusted her and she was letting him down.
Climbing from beneath where the terrace jutted out from the main building, Rose had taken only one determined step when all at once her world came crashing down around her.
Anthony Germaine yowled in agony as he half hit the ground and half landed on something soft. He reached out for purchase, to stop from falling face first into the gravel even as he felt the bone in his foot crunch and give way beneath him.
The next sound to rent the still air was a tearing of fabric followed by feminine shrieks both from under and from above. He closed his eyes against the pain and rolled onto his back on the damp ground.
“Damn it all to hell,” he howled, unable to hold it in any longer.
Light reached his closed lids and at the sounds of the masses emerging onto the terrace where he’d sought refuge, he opened his eyes and groaned again.
Lady Ulverston stared down at him in horror, her brows high and her fan dangling from fingers held in front of her open mouth. Only, she didn’t really stare at him, more right above him.
Anthony tilted his head back, careless of his perfectly arranged hair, of his expensive tailored suit and highly shined boots. The sight that met his narrowed gaze made him want to howl again. All he could see were legs and skirts. Two slender legs encased in white hose disappearing beneath a mountain of pale, frothy skirts.
Like a turtle on her back, the unfortunate matron he’d knocked over in his haste to escape the ballroom, attempted to regain her feet but failed miserably. A blistering curse emerged from the pile of silks and ribbons.
Actual minutes passed before a few gentlemen ran down the stairs to assist the matron back to the standing position she’d been in before he’d so inelegantly crashed into her. All the assembled gentry seemed to be in a state of shock. But then the whispers began, turning into a torrent of fast-moving gossip intermingled with barely smothered laughter.
Anthony couldn’t move. Pain gripped him so even breathing became difficult. When the crowd fell silent with a collective gasp, Anthony had to tilt his head back again to see what held the group transfixed. The matron had regained her standing but what captured his attention was the fact that the woman he’d jumped on in the dark was no middle-ager. She couldn’t have been more than eighteen years old. What caused the instantaneous hush was that she held her pale gown together over her chest, her breasts pushing up and over the fabric as she tried to hold on and not come spilling out. Her chestnut hair was loose and sticking out in every direction possible, her spectacles were askew and her lower lip and chin shone bright red in the light of the ballroom.
She turned away from their growing audience but not quickly enough.
How would he talk his way out of this one? He had snuck into the ball to confront the Earl of Clairmont regarding a position with the Bow Street Runners. A position he had been continually rejected for even though he had the right skill set for the job. The earl had threatened to have him tossed out before telling him what he really thought of him.
“I’m going to be completely honest with you now so that you might leave me the hell alone,” he’d said.
Anthony had gulped, his cheeks burning with anger, with despair. “Please do.”
“You may have saved the prince’s life. You may even have the best set of investigative skills England has ever known, but you will never get this position while I am in charge of the Runners. I don’t trust you. I don’t like you. Your father is a murderous pirate and your sister a wild hoyden, barely a woman and never a lady.”
Anthony had opened his mouth to dispute the charges as they were but found there wasn’t much to say to a man who, like so many before him, had already made his mind up about the son of a pirate first, a baron’s daughter second.
The earl wasn’t done. “I have been charged with the great honour of organising these men, of restoring some amount of law and dignity back to this city by apprehending criminals and seeing they hang for their crimes. You, sir, amount to a criminal. Your unfortunate start to life has tarred you with the same brush as every other villain in this city, and I will not besmirch the institution I am trying to build by naming you a Runner. Not today. Not ever.”
His dreams of rising above his birth, of making a difference, had been shattered by those cruel words. He was on his way out of the ballroom when he’d noticed the earl’s two eldest sons shadowing him. He’d bumped into a woman, which had sent her stumbling into a circle of yet more bejewelled viragos, all shooting glares at him. The commoner. The klutz. He’d heard their whispers.
Anthony had fled out onto the terrace and vaulted over the balustrade to escape what was surely going to be a beating from the brothers and a flaying from the granddames. He’d hide for a moment and then be on his way.
He hadn’t counted on anyone being below.
He hadn’t had enough time to think about it one way or another.
Who the bloody hell dithered in the garden at a ball, amongst the rosebushes of all places?
Anthony came to the wrong conclusions at the exact time the assembled guests did. They were partially hidden from anyone wandering the path and to make matters so much worse, the poor girl looked thoroughly ravished.
He was doomed.
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