Published by Entangled: Amara on February 25, 2019
Purchase: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo
Betrayed by her fiancé and her best friend, Lady Diana Haversham's reputation is left in ruins, and she is unjustly cast out by her family. Left with little choice, she agrees to pretend to be a courtesan to protect her benefactor's secret. What she didn't count on was meeting temptation in the form of one Lord Lucas Blackthorn.
Lucas is fascinated by the shameless Diana, whom his friends claim is his perfect counterpart. He can't stop thinking about her sultry smile and captivating eyes, but what draws him most is the sharp mind she reveals—and the certainty she's hiding something.
When Lucas learns the scandalous truth, Diana will have to make a life-and-death choice.
My life is over. Lady Diana’s hand trembled as she handed the paper back to her furious uncle, Lord Bolingbroke. Her fiancé had disappeared last week and, according to this morning’s Gazette, had yesterday returned from Gretna Green a married man. Lucille, her best friend—former best, she corrected herself—was now Lady Grenville.
Aunt Jane, her normally timid voice shrill, shattered the stifling silence. “I warned you what would happen if you lifted your skirts before his ring was on your finger!”
Diana’s temper flared. “And I told you it’s a lie! I never allowed—”
“Oh, stop it, girl!” snapped her aunt. “Everyone thinks you did, and that’s what matters. That, and the fact that Grenville is now lost to us forever.”
“I beg to differ,” Diana shot back, folding her arms across her chest so they wouldn’t see her shaking hands. “The facts matter a great deal. Aunt Jane, you’ve been with me to every ball, every party. When has there ever been an opportunity for me to behave in such a manner? You know it’s not true! You can tell all those gossiping old—”
“Not every party,” interjected her uncle. “Your aunt did not attend the Hancocks’ party with you a fortnight ago. Idid, and you were out of my sight for quite some time.”
The insinuation elicited a pain in Diana’s heart such as she’d not felt in years. She was accustomed to her uncle’s hard ways, but this was too much. In spite of the rage and fear coursing through her, she kept her voice calm. “If you will remember, Uncle, you went to play cards in the library with the other gentlemen and I was not permitted to accompany you. But I remained in the ballroom the entire time, as you instructed. I did not even visit the powder—”
“It matters not where it happened,” he said, cutting her off with a look of cool disdain. “Thanks to your imprudence, you’ve been painted in an ill light, and us along with you.”
Her gasp was a sound halfway between laughter and horror. “What imprudence? I beg you tell me so I may know what lie dares threaten my good name.”
“It is no lie,” he replied, narrowing his eyes. “Grenville told everyone you invited him to take liberties with you, and I know it to be true. Your aunt told me you let him kiss you.”
She let out an incredulous laugh. “I allowed him a chaste kiss the day I accepted his proposal. Nothing more! One simple kiss with one’s fiancé surely cannot be equated with ‘liberties’.”
But his expression remained unmoving. “He intimated it was far more than ‘one simple kiss,’ which you should never have permitted in the first place. That…among other things.”
Heat crept into Diana’s cheeks, and her heart began to pound anew. “It was once, Uncle, and only once. He’d only just asked for my hand, and you specifically ordered me not to discourage his affection for fear of endangering the match with—how did you put it? Ah, yes: ‘female frigidity’.”
Bolingbroke’s beefy face darkened to an ugly purple. “Insolent harlot! You dare cast my own words back at me?”
“I am no harlot!” Diana shouted, past caring. “And you were the one to speak them. Do you deny them now?” She braced herself as he took a step toward her.
Aunt Jane stepped in, her cheeks as pale as parchment, and laid a restraining hand on his sleeve. “Arthur, please—”
“Enough!” shouted Bolingbroke, shaking himself loose with a growl. “I will not tolerate defiance in my household. Not from her, and certainly not from you,” he rasped, shoving a fat finger in his wife’s face and causing her to flinch. “There is more to this than one kiss. Grenville said he’d heard tales concerning her lack of propriety on other occasions from several different men.”
Shock coursed through Diana, swiftly followed by anger. “What men? Who has spoken such lies?”
But her uncle ignored her outraged inquiry. “Being a gentleman, he had refused to believe them—until he’d witnessed it himself. It is an embarrassment not to be borne!”
“But she claims to be innocent,” pleaded Aunt Jane in a small voice. “Surely there must be some way to prove—”
His eyes widened until the whites showed all around his small brown irises, and Diana shook her head slightly, willing her aunt to be silent.
Bolingbroke’s voice was as cold as a cheerless winter’s dawn. “You dare persist in pleading this creature’s case when the stain of her scandal threatens to taint us all? Think of your own children, woman. People will talk of this for years to come. No matter what ‘proof’ is offered, there will always be the question. Even you confessed doubts as to her virtue.”
It was all Diana could do to conceal how deeply this revelation wounded her.
“But she is our niece, Arthur. We cannot—”
“She’s none of my blood!” he snarled, his mouth thinning to a bitter line.
Dread filled Diana, along with icy calm. She knew what was coming. Aunt Jane had been kind after her parents’ deaths and had loved her as best she could, but Bolingbroke had never warmed toward his wife’s orphaned niece. He’d tolerated her, but after assuming the title of viscount last year he’d become insufferable, always reminding her she lived as befitted a lady only because of his charity and sufferance.
Puffing out his chest, he continued, relentless. “I have a responsibility to this family, to my own good name, and I refuse to shirk it. You are to leave this house at once.”
“Arthur!” gasped Aunt Jane. “You cannot cast her out into the street! Think of—”
“Silence!” he thundered, sending flecks of spittle flying. “I will not be prevailed upon to house a wanton trull under my own roof!”
Rejecting the sudden impulse to crumple to the floor, Diana squared her shoulders and stood her tallest. She’d rather die than beg this man for mercy, if such a thing even existed in his cold, empty heart. “I vow before God I’m innocent of any immorality,” she said with quiet dignity. “You accuse me wrongly and will only add to the undeserved slurs against me by refusing to deny them.”
Beneath her withering gaze, he shrank a little. But it wasn’t enough. “I have little choice but to renounce you—for the sake of my own daughters,” he countered, but his tone was less strident than before. It weakened further as she continued to stare him down. “I do it for my family!”
Unbidden, a strangled chuckle rose up in Diana’s throat. “I realize you feel no personal obligation where I’m concerned, Uncle,” she said, placing deliberate emphasis on the familial title, “but despite your fervent wishes otherwise, I am a member of your family.”
Vicious glee kindled in his eyes. “Not anymore.”
Again, Aunt Jane risked censure to do what Diana couldn’t. “Arthur, I beg you to be sensible about this. If she isinnocent…” she trailed off, and for a moment Diana thought she’d fall silent rather than face his anger. But her aunt had more courage than she gave her credit for. “If that is not reason enough, think how others will view us. Remember that you are being considered for the Order of the Garter.” This time when she rested a hand on his arm, Bolingbroke let it stay. “As such, it would be far better to be merciful and be looked upon as overly kind rather than cruel and unfeeling.”
The silence stretched taut between them. Then: “Three days,” he said at last. “I’ll give her three days to settle herself elsewhere. Quietly.” He turned to again address her. “You may take what came with you when you go, as well as your clothing. I want nothing of you to remain in this house.”
“I assume that includes my dowry?” Diana heard herself ask mildly. It was almost as if someone else were forming the words with her lips. Satisfaction seeped into her, warming her as his face registered first surprise and then outrage. That’s right, you greedy bastard! I’ve not forgotten. “My father’s will made provision for seven thousand pounds for my dowry. You’ve held this in trust on my behalf. I am still unwed. As stipulated by the will, the moment you cease to be my guardian, it belongs to me.”
The plum flush returned to his cheeks with alarming swiftness. “Ungrateful little bitch! I have put a roof over your head and food in your mouth for ten damned years!”
But his rage was no match for hers. Diana no longer felt any fear, for she had nothing to lose. What good were clothes and a few pieces of furniture when one had nowhere to put them and no means to feed oneself? “Perhaps I should seek an audience with the king? I’m certain His Majesty would see the daughter of his dear friend, the late Duke of Avondale,” she reminded him. “Perhaps he would award you a fair portion to cover the expense of feeding and clothing a child for ten years—taking into account, of course, that the interest from my dower fund has been accumulating in your coffers for the entire duration—but I’m certain he would not ask me to forfeit the entire amount.”
His lips went white, slowly followed by the rest of his face. Diana knew his accounts would not withstand close scrutiny by the Crown. Even so, the man quickly recovered his bluster. “Do you truly believe His Majesty would tolerate someone like you in his presence? You can be assured he will have heard of your downfall.”
“Naturally, I shall request that the court physician examine me and attest to my innocence,” she said lightly. “And once my name has been cleared of the slander that has besmirched it, I shall protest your undeservedly harsh treatment of me and beg His Majesty to make me a ward of the Crown.”
“You would not dare!” he spluttered.
She smiled her sweetest smile. “In addition to reclaiming my entire dowry, the reinstatement of my good name would be well worth any embarrassment I might have to endure. You, on the other hand…”
“This is extortion!” he shouted. “I should have you—”
“Arthur!” hissed Aunt Jane, tugging on his arm hard enough to jerk his attention away. Braving his wrath, she leaned close, and Diana heard her whisper urgently: “If she petitions the Crown, His Majesty will hear her—her rank guarantees it. And she will have the right of it. You yourself said Avondale’s will ensured her dowry was well protected. And what if she should somehow manage to prove herself innocent? It would look very bad on you.” Her voice lowered further. “You would have had to part with the money when she married.”
Diana watched him struggle, his greed and loathing for her battling against prudence. His jaw worked, and the vein at his temple bulged as he tried to think of a way to rob her of her inheritance with impunity. She knew he’d never rescind his eviction—not that she’d stay now, even if he got down on his knees and begged her. His pride had suffered too much injury by her refusal to succumb to his bullying. “Aunt Jane is right,” she said quietly. “If you give me what is mine, I’ll have no legitimate grounds to petition the Crown. Or indeed to ever disturb you again,” she added for good measure.
He leveled his index finger at her, his fierce gaze belied by its trembling, his voice low and savage. “Three thousand, and not a penny more.”
It was more than she’d hoped for five minutes ago. She nodded acceptance, sending a silent prayer of thanks to God that he hadn’t called her bluff. In truth, she had no idea how to gain an audience with the king. Her father’s name might have held sway at court once upon a time, but ten long years had passed since his death.
“And another thing,” her uncle added, raking her with mean eyes. “After you leave, you are to have no communication with anyone in this household ever again. Is that understood? No visits and no letters. This family cannot risk further association with such as you.”
Though it pained her, she nodded again. Little Bellatrisse and Rowena were away visiting their grandmother and would not be back for a week. I won’t even be allowed to say goodbye, even in a letter… They were the closest things to sisters she’d ever had, and the thought of never seeing them again made her eyes smart. Steeling herself, she pushed her pain aside and focused on her outrage at his treatment of her.
“Well?” he demanded after a moment. “Will you not even thank me? I should think you’d be grateful for my generosity. A less kind man would have turned you out with nothing, regardless of your threats. I’d be well within my rights.”
Diana bit her tongue so hard she tasted blood. How dare he expect my gratitude for casting me out with only a portion of that which is mine to begin with? Still, she could little afford to provoke him further. Lowering her eyes, she forced the bile back down enough to say in what she hoped sounded like a meek tone, “Thank you.”
It seemed to mollify him somewhat. “That’s better.” He turned from her to face his wife. “A man ought to be more respected in his own household. I blame you for how this one turned out, Jane.”
Aghast, Diana tore her gaze from the floor to stare at her white-faced aunt.
Bolingbroke continued to berate his wife. “Had you done a better job of teaching her the importance of propriety, this would not have happened. I shall expect you to look upon this incident as a lesson to be applied to our own daughters whereas it pertains to instilling a sense of proper decorum.” He turned back to an infuriated Diana. “You’ve been bold here today, girl, but the world out there will teach you your place,” he said, jerking a meaty thumb toward the window. “I suggest you make good use of the time I’ve granted you, for it won’t be extended by so much as a minute.”
Oh, how I hate him! How could he blame either of them for something that hadn’t even happened? She wanted to rail at him, to claw at his eyes and tear the cruel smirk from his face. Instead, she stood in sullen silence, concentrating on the interminable ticking of the mantel clock, waiting to be dismissed.
“You may go,” he finally grumbled.
Turning on her heel, Diana stalked out and mounted the stairs on trembling legs. Upon entering her room, she closed the door and leaned against it, willing herself not to cry.
There wasn’t time to grieve. Three days. I have just three days to find a place to live and a means of supporting myself.
The money would be enough to rent rooms in a halfway decent part of Town and feed herself—if she were frugal—for a few years. And what good will that do? Cast out, my reputation in shreds, who will receive me? What man will consider marrying me? Without connections, how am I to make my way in the world?
Moving to the country was an alternative. The money would certainly last a lot longer there, but not indefinitely. And then what?
The question loomed before her like a great black cloud, obscuring all else. She could write and calculate sums, but neither of those skills would earn enough to support herself. No self-respecting mother would consider her for a governess once the tale of her “ruination” came to light. And none of the other feminine arts she’d learned at her aunt’s knee would afford her a living beyond that of the meanest poverty.
Three days. What could she do in three days except pack her things and sink into despair? I might as well leave now. She cast about, looking at the familiar room and wishing it was anywhere but in Bolingbroke’s house. Her newest ball gown hung on the wardrobe door, where her maid had left it to let out the wrinkles. She ran reverent fingers over the soft, petal-pink damask, noting how the diaphanous layer of fine gold silk covering the skirt panels made it look like a rose-tinted sunrise.
She was to have worn it to the Whitfield ball tonight.
Her aunt would have no choice but to sequester herself until the “harlot” had been ejected from their house, thereby restoring her to her proper place amongst the moral majority.
Why not go without her?
The rebellious thought was so ridiculous she almost laughed. But at the same time it was so utterly appealing that she was tempted. Sorely tempted. She’d give just about anything to be out of this room, away from this place. She eyed the gown again.
Why not? The invitation still stood, after all. No one knew her aunt and uncle were about to disown her. She’d wait until everyone had gone to bed, which ought to be soon, considering her aunt had already complained of a headache. Her uncle would likely closet himself in his library, nursing his beloved brandy, until the wee hours. Her hair was already done. All she had to do was put on that gown and get out unnoticed. The servants’ stair would work. She could hire a carriage to take her to the ball, which would not end until dawn.
It would be her last chance—her only chance—to ensnare a husband. No doubt that, like her uncle, many had read the papers and were even now drawing their conclusions, but she’d not yet been ostracized. There might still be a way out of this.
If I can somehow arrange to become truly compromised by a gentleman…
But hope’s flame guttered after only the briefest flare. It would never work. No man would offer her marriage under the current circumstances, not even after having taken her maidenhead. Despite her innocence, he’d deny it to save himself from the scandal of marrying a woman of questionable virtue, and then she’d truly be branded a harlot. A strumpet. A—
A prickly, unpleasant sensation crept across Diana’s scalp and slowly marched down her back. Now there was an option that would provide a comfortable life, for all that it would be a life of sin. That she’d even think of taking such a course showed the depths to which she’d already sunk.
Yet some courtesans become mistresses, and some mistresses eventually become wives. What if she agreed to become a gentleman’s lover tonight? And what if he then fell in love with her? As for returning the tender sentiment, she had no intention of it. Her heart wouldn’t be part of the bargain. Love was unreliable. People always broke your heart. Like her parents when they’d died. Like her aunt when she’d turned her back on her own kin. Like the fiancé who’d claimed to love her, only to betray her with her supposed-best friend.
Better to keep one’s heart to oneself than let it be torn apart.
She looked at the rose gown again. It was an enormous risk. If her first mark did not fall hopelessly in love with her and marry her, she would indeed have to become a courtesan in truth.
Can I bring myself to do such a thing?
A gleam of gold and a spark of reflected light caught her eye as she turned away. Her mother’s jewels lay on the vanity, ready for her to wear tonight. Bolingbroke might be willing to let her take furniture and clothing, but her jewels might be another matter entirely. Those, he could say, belonged to her mother’s sister—his wife.
She shook her head to clear it. Focus on the task at hand! If Bolingbroke decided to take them, there would be nothing she could do about it. Unless I wear them out tonight and never return. If this worked, she would send for her other things and hope he failed to remember them. She picked up her mother’s diamond necklace, feeling the cool weight of it in her palm.
Mama. Had she lived, none of this would have happened. She would’ve been presented two years ago and already be safely married.
As Diana clutched the jewels, a strange peace came over her, along with renewed resolve. Bolingbroke couldn’t take them before she wore them one last time, at least. When she was done, provided all went according to the half-formed and completely mad plan taking shape in her mind, London’s gossips would be telling another story entirely, one that would take the malicious lies that had ruined her and turn them on the very people who’d betrayed her.
Laying the necklace back down, she went and took the pink gown from the wardrobe and laid it across her bed. Next, she rummaged in her sewing basket and took out her embroidery scissors. With its lace-embellished bosom and a fichu, the pink gown was a very modest affair. Without those affects, however…
Her hands paused over the delicate lace, and she marked how they shook. Can I really do this? Can I deliberately set my feet on such an unsavory path? So much could go wrong. But the prospect of a slow decline into abject poverty loomed ahead if she didn’t take this final opportunity. Never again would she be received on her own by Polite Society.
Taking a deep breath, she began to carefully take out the tiny stitches securing the lace to the neckline.
Anything was preferable to starvation.
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