Lady Meets Her Match

By: Gina Conkle


One




London, 1768

No mask like open truth to cover lies,

As to go naked is the best disguise.

William Congreve, The Double Dealer

A woman on the verge of moral downfall ought to be well dressed. Claire’s particular transgression was gartered to her thigh, a paper hidden by yards of silk. She walked through the empty alley, confident in one comforting truth: no one dared ask a lady what her skirts concealed.

She glanced down at her small bosom, where soft moonlight splashed a distracting display of flesh. “And no one will be alarmed by what’s revealed there, not that any will see me.”

The sparkling blue-and-silver creation would be off soon, after midnight. The ball gown was worn just in case, a costume of sorts to fit into a place she didn’t belong. Despite each well-planned detail, damp palms proved her outward calm a hoax. She’d always been a good girl—minus a slip in judgment some years ago.

What she was about to do trumped her past error. In spades.

That is, if someone catches me.

A deep breath failed to stop a tiny hiccup. Looking at the grand house ahead, this evening’s ruse proved one thing: a woman’s independence came at a price. If she wanted a different path, everything hinged on tonight’s success.

She hooked her plain cloak on a fence post. Wetness swathed cobblestones from a recent summer shower, wafting scents of washed earth. Nice for this part of London…so different from her Cornhill section of Town.

She stepped off Vigo Lane into the mews of one Cyrus Ryland, the King of Commerce. England’s celebrated commoner and landlord for much of midtown had something she wanted—his signature. Somewhere in his palatial West End sprawl of a home she’d find it, forge it, and disappear back into the late August night.

The well-laid plan sounded reasonable.

Why then did the sheer size of Mr. Ryland’s home put a lump in her throat?

“There you are,” Abigail said, pots and pans banging behind her. She passed through the kitchen doorway with a busy woman’s stride. “Didn’t see you earlier. Thought you’d lost your nerve.”

Abigail Green, housekeeper of Ryland House, jingled a set of keys. She searched out the right one as she moved along the limestone edifice toward the servants’ quarters. Overhead, brass candle lanterns chased off the night where two of Mr. Ryland’s hulking carriages claimed much space in the mews.

“Lost my nerve? No.” Claire adjusted her beaded mask. “But I admit, I’m holding on to my last ounce of courage.”

An iron key slid home in the lock. Abigail turned it with a quiet snap, but she kept one hand on the knob, her mobcap casting shadows over serious features.

“If you’re having a change of heart, now’s the time to say so.”

Claire looked at the key nestled in the lock. “No. I’m going through with this.”

The door clicked open to a stark, whitewashed hall stretching ahead. Both women marched through the lonely quarters, their footfalls echoing.

“Understand, I’ll lead you to his study, but I won’t stay with you.” Abigail opened another door, this one broad paneled and crafted to blend into the wall. “The house is in an uproar what with being two footmen plus a maid short and this grand ball going on.”

The portal offered entry into another world, the kind of place spun in fairy tales told for lesser mortals. People talked of Ryland House’s grandeur, and now Claire stood, an openmouthed witness.

Massive chandeliers cast tiny rainbow prisms high on pale walls trimmed with elaborate boiseries. For the hall to be so well lit… Were there people in this section of the house? She couldn’t imagine letting candles burn for no reason.

Lush murals of pastoral bliss covered ceiling panels, creating a wonderland. The artful display unfolded overhead like delightful pages of a child’s picture book, stretching the length of the hallway.

Abigail pushed the door shut and pocketed the keys, a dark, weighty clump in her apron. “I’m only helping you because of what you did for my sister, but if you’re caught, don’t say my name. I’ll deny everything.”

There was finality in those pale blue eyes, so like Annie’s.

“I’m only copying his signature.” A quelling hand rested on her midsection. “Then I’ll take my leave as quickly as I’ve come.”

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