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A New Acquaintance

Gentlemen, if we are to regard our friends with such constant suspicion—if we are to be jealous of the wives of our bosom, we had infinitely better close our doors against society altogether.
The Trial of Birch vs. Neal for Criminal Conversation

It was early in the gray, grim, grimy London morning, and Rosalind Thorne was entirely exhausted. She hadn't even been to bed. After leaving Graham's, she'd been able to return home just long enough to change out of her lady's maid costume. She'd promised to return the cameo to Mrs. Devery before her household was awake. Once there, she'd needed to stay long enough to make sure the young woman not
only heard but retained her instructions. Mrs. Devery was to confess her debts to her husband. She was to face Mr. Fullerton calmly when she produced the original of the cameo, but to speak to him no more than was strictly necessary and on no account to allow herself to be alone with him. If Fullerton made any additional threats or demands, Mrs. Devery was to write to Rosalind at once.

Mrs. Devery was also to make sure she gave her old nurse a token of gratitude to help ensure the loyal woman remained loyal, despite any additional provocations, or bribes, that might be offered.

On the long, jostling ride back through the morning traffic of vans, carts, and sheep flocks, Rosalind kept herself awake by considering what to do with the letters she had stolen from Fullerton's drawer. Probably, they were additional fuel for his blackmail. Therefore, the wisest, simplest, and most honorable course of action was to burn them all unopened. This firm and sensible thought warred with the image of the woman retreating into the darkness with her lover. It raised in her the unworthy idea that Mr. Fullerton might be
someone she needed to speak with in the near future, and if she did, she would need to have some way to encourage him to answer her.

With all that ringing through her head, and her conscience, Rosalind entirely forgot she'd agreed to receive her friend, Alice Littlefield, until the moment she walked back into her house.

"Oh, Rosalind, at last!" Alice darted out of the parlor just at the moment Rosalind entered the cramped front hall. Mrs. Kendricks, the housekeeper, was caught with her mouth open. "I was beginning to think we'd miss you altogether." Alice gave Rosalind a quick kiss on the cheek. "I've brought Mrs. Seymore, as I told you, and I have promised her faithfully you will not turn her away." She paused. "What is the matter? Are you unwell?"

"No, I'm perfectly well, thank you," Rosalind replied. "I'm sorry I was so long. The appointment this morning turned out to be more complicated than I had hoped."

Rosalind left her coat, bonnet, and a request for coffee with Mrs. Kendricks and allowed Alice to seize her hand to draw her into the tiny, tidy parlor.

"Rosalind," said Alice. "This is my friend, Mrs. William Seymore. Margaretta, may I introduce Miss Rosalind Thorne?"

Mrs. Seymore stood, and she and Rosalind both made their curtsies.

"How do you do, Miss Thorne?" Mrs. Seymore's voice was unusually low for a woman's, and held a distinct musical tone. "Thank you for agreeing to see me, especially at such an hour."

Had Alice been alone, or with her brother George, Rosalind might have just confessed to her midnight adventure and asked to be excused. But this Mrs. Seymore was a stranger. Therefore, etiquette must take precedence over exhaustion.

"A pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Seymore," said Rosalind. "Won't you please sit down?"

Mrs. Seymore settled onto Rosalind's sofa beside Alice, while Rosalind took her usual chair by the fireplace. Mrs. Seymore was a striking woman. She had left the flush of youth behind, but she was one of those ladies whom time had bloomed rather than withered. She had a wealth of dark hair that was dressed simply. Her eyes were likewise dark, and wide-set. Her matron's summer gown was cream and apricot, without lace or ribbon. Its simplicity spoke not only of excellent taste, but of the easy poise so prized by members of the
haut ton.

Mrs. Seymore took Rosalind in with a glance of those dark eyes, assessing her quickly, and showing Rosalind there was a sharp mind behind that beauty.

"Mrs. Seymore is a poetess," said Alice. "And a ballad writer."

Mrs. Seymore inclined her head with studied modesty. This explained how she came to know Alice. Like Rosalind, tiny, quick, dark Alice Littlefield had been born into the aristocracy. But her father had squandered his fortune, and his children were left to make shift for themselves. Now, Alice kept house with her brother, George, and made her living as a writer for newspapers and annuals. This change of station had gained Alice a large and eccentric acquaintance throughout London's literary world.

"Do you want me to begin, Margaretta?" Alice asked Mrs. Seymore.

"No. This once I will tell my own story, even if I never do so again." Mrs. Seymore straightened her shoulders, and Rosalind had the distinct sensation of an actress striking a pose. "You have before you, Miss Thorne, a woman on the edge of public disgrace."

This excerpt ends on page 14 of the paperback edition.


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