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Authors: Nadine Miller

The Madcap Masquerade

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THE MADCAP MASQUERADE

by

Nadine Miller

CHAPTER ONE

L
ily St. Germaine was dead. Struck down in the street by a coach and four while departing a fashionable West End gambling establishment after a night of heavy losses at the faro table.

There were those who pronounced it a fitting end for one of London’s most notorious courtesans. Certainly her long-suffering family, which had disowned her some twenty-two years previously, felt nothing but relief at her passing. Lily had been the only blot on the long, distinguished history of the house St. Germaine and took wicked delight in rubbing their noses in it by using her maiden name rather than that of her estranged husband. One and all, they echoed the sentiments of Edward St. Germaine, the Marquis of Eversham and patriarch of the clan, when he said, “God willing, the silly jade will soon be forgotten now that she’s finally turned up her toes.”

It was therefore left to Lily’s daughter, Maeve Barrington, to follow the simple casket to its lonely resting place and weep heartfelt tears as it was lowered into the ground. For though Lily had been an unconventional parent, she had, in her own haphazard way, been an affectionate one, and Maeve had dearly loved her outrageous mother.

It was also left to Maeve to face the hoard of shop keepers, modistes, wine merchants and gambling hell owners who converged on Lily’s small house on the outskirts of London demanding payment of her mountain of debts. “How could my mother have been so irresponsible?” Maeve asked Bridget Higgins, Lily’s longtime housekeeper and confidante as they shared a cup of tea in the kitchen while the creditors pounded on the front door.

Bridget smiled reminiscently. “Lily was Lily, my dear. There’s no use asking why she did what she did, for there was never another like her.”

“I shall sell her jewelry, of course, after I have it appraised at Rundell and Bridge.” Maeve sighed. “Though I doubt even a collection as magnificent as hers will garner enough to pay all she owed.”

Bridget took a sip of her steaming tea. “Don’t waste your money on appraisal fees. I can tell you now that with the exception of the pearls the Marquis of Sandford gave her, the pieces are all paste.”

“Paste?” Maeve stared at her mother’s plump, blue-eyed housekeeper in horror. “Surely you’re mistaken.”

Bridget tucked a stray strand of gray hair behind her ear. “Have you forgotten that the marquis was Lily’s last wealthy protector and that he died more than three years ago?”

Maeve shook her head. “Of course not. I remember how surprised she was that he’d willed her this house after such a brief … arrangement.”

“But he left her no money and she was already up to her eyebrows in debt. When she failed to attract another protector, she was forced to sell all the pretty baubles her various patrons had given her to keep up appearances. There is no one more vulnerable than an aging courtesan. If the word had gotten out she was sailing the River Tick, the wolves would have been yapping at her door.”

“Instead they’re yapping at mine,” Maeve said grimly. “But, of course, Lily would not have considered that.” She studied the soft, matronly features of the woman who faced her across the kitchen table. “And what of you, Bridget? After all your years of faithful service, she should have provided an adequate pension for you to enjoy in your old age. Instead, you are left with nothing but the clothes on your back. Where will you go? What will you do?

“Don’t worry about me, dear child. I have a married sister in Yorkshire who will take me in,” Bridget said in her usual placid manner. “And as for Lily’s many creditors, you’ll just have to charm them into waiting for their money and pray they’ll eventually give it up as a hopeless cause. It’s what Lily would have done.”

Maeve couldn’t help but smile at Bridget’s ridiculous suggestion. “I doubt I could carry it off. In case you’ve failed to notice, I’m not a gorgeous, statuesque blonde like my mother. I can neither hypnotize irate tradesmen with my beauty, nor twist them around my little finger as she did.”

Maeve had lived too long in Lily’s shadow to have any illusions about herself. She knew full well she was a plain woman—small of stature, with a thin, sharp-chinned face and a mass of fine, mouse-brown hair which always seemed to be escaping from the chignon at her nape. Since her large, emerald-green eyes were the only feature she’d inherited from her mother, she assumed she could attribute the rest of her unremarkable appearance to the man whose name she bore.

She knew nothing about her father except the little Lily had divulged one cold winter’s evening when they’d shared a bottle of fine old claret. “Harry Barrington was a boorish country squire who seduced me when I was but sixteen,” Lily had confided. “He married me when he found I was breeding, but went his own way once he knew the baby was a girl.”

That telling bit of information, plus the fact that he had never contributed a farthing toward her support, had given Maeve a profound contempt for the man who’d sired her. In truth, she had little use for any man. A lifetime of watching her beautiful mother sell herself, body and soul, to one wealthy patron after another had fostered a deep resentment toward all males.

Lily had found life as a courtesan exciting; Maeve considered it a degradation of the human spirit. Now at the ripe old age of two and twenty, she was a sharp-tongued spinster whose bible was Mary Wollstonecraft’s radical treatise
The Vindication of the Rights of Women.

“I had hoped to keep this house, but I see now I shall be forced to sell it to pay the most pressing of Lily’s debts,” she said more to herself than to Bridget.

“But why?” Bridget’s forehead wrinkled in a puzzled frown. “I doubt the authorities will throw you into debtors’ prison for failing to pay another person’s debts, even if that person is your mother. And I know you too well to believe you care what a gaggle of greedy shopkeepers and gambling hell owners think of you.”

“The reason is simple. I cannot afford to have anyone prying into my affairs—which some enterprising merchant will be certain to do if he thinks I intend to cheat him. Have you forgotten that my ability to provide for myself depends on my keeping the secret of my identity from my employer? How long do you think I’d remain a political cartoonist for the
London Times
if it became known that Marcus Browne was in reality a woman?”

Bridget’s eyes widened. “Oh dear, I’d quite forgotten about your ‘secret.’ To be honest, I can never equate you with those wickedly humorous drawings that have all London buzzing. Of course, you are absolutely right. It will never do to have the Bow Street Runners investigate you at the behest of some angry creditor. But surely there must be some way to come up with the money other than selling this house. It is the only real security you have.”

“If there is, I cannot think of it.” Maeve had had years of experience watching Lily make the best of a dicey situation. That experience stood her in good stead now. “First, I shall stall the creditors by telling them I’ll settle their accounts once I receive payment for the house,” she said matter-of-factly. “Then I’ll put it on the market as soon as we can clean out Lily’s personal effects and sell off her furs and ball gowns and the best of the paintings. Some nobleman is certain to see it as the perfect hideaway for his mistress—which, after all, is the use for which it was originally designed.”

Bridget, too, had learned to be a realist during the years she’d served Lily. “An excellent plan,” she agreed after but a moment’s hesitation. “I’ll leave you to deal with the creditors while I begin the task of removing Lily’s gowns from her armoire.

As it turned out, convincing the creditors to wait for their money was much easier than Maeve had anticipated. To a man, they grumbled loudly, then agreed to give her time to sell her mother’s house and possessions before pushing for a settlement.

Sorting through those possessions was not so easy. Maeve had known the task would be a heartbreaking one; she had just not realized how heartbreaking. Each gown and bonnet and pair of slippers evoked memories of Lily wearing them; each painting and knickknack recalled the look of pleasure on Lily’s expressive face when she acquired it. In mutual misery, Bridget and she tearfully set about eliminating all trace of the flamboyant woman they had both loved from the charming little house.

As if even the weather conspired against them, on the third day of their thankless task, London was beset with one of the fierce spring storms for which it was famous. Without warning, the noon sky darkened to where Maeve had to light a candle; a moment later rain pelted the window of the bedchamber in which they worked and rat-a-tatted on the roof above them.

Maeve was in the process of constructing the wooden crates for the paintings she was planning to send to the auctioneer while Bridget counted the bed linens, when over the noise of the storm they heard someone pounding on the front door.

“Another creditor, no doubt.” Bridget sniffed. “The fool must be either excessively greedy or excessively desperate for his money to come out in weather like this.”

Reluctantly, Maeve put down her hammer. “I’ll answer the door and give him the same story I’ve given the others. Like it or not, he’ll have to accept it.”

Lighting another candle, she made her way down the narrow winding staircase to the street floor and opened the door. To her surprise, the rain-soaked man on her doorstep was not garbed in the traditional dark merchant’s clothing with which she’d become so familiar in the past few days. Instead, his narrow shoulders were draped in an elegant green cape trimmed in gold braid. A gust of wind blew the cape open, and Maeve could see he was wearing an equally elegant green and gold footman’s livery, which perfectly matched the colors of the carriage waiting at the curb.

“I have a note for Miss Maeve Barrington from Lady Hermione Brathwaite,” the young footman said, raking her fly-away hair and drab brown gown with insolent eyes.

Maeve recognized the name. Lady Hermione was Lily’s first cousin once removed and the only member of her family who had kept in contact with her since her fall from grace. Maeve had met the lady on a number of occasions and remembered her as a pretty blonde with a soft voice and a quick smile, who bore a strong family resemblance to Lily.

“I am Maeve Barrington,” she said, holding out her hand for the note. “If Lady Hermione requires an answer, you may wait inside out of the rain while I write it.”

Though he looked a bit dubious, the footman stepped through her doorway, produced a square of folded paper from his pocket and handed it to her.

The note consisted of one brief sentence scrawled across the paper in a childish-looking handwriting:

I must see you immediately on a matter most urgent.

Hermione Brathwaite

Puzzled, Maeve stared at the cryptic note. She couldn’t imagine what “urgent matter” she might have in common with one of the
ton’s
most popular hostesses. But out of gratitude for Lady Hermione’s loyalty to Lily, she felt obliged to honor her request.

“If you please, Miss, her ladyship said I was to bring you to her with all haste and she’ll have my hide if I fail to do so.” The young footman’s disapproving tone of voice implied he considered his employer’s choice of companions somewhat suspect, and Maeve could scarcely blame him. She had been hammering and sawing since dawn and a fine film of sawdust had settled on her hair and akin and on the faded old gown she’d chosen to wear while she worked.

The thought popped into her head that the ever fastidious Lily would think it a great joke that her daughter looked so disreputable, even a footman took her in disgust—until she remembered she would never again share a laugh with her charming, irrepressible mother.

A wave of stark, black grief engulfed her. Reeling beneath its impact, she choked out, “Wait here while I get my bonnet and pelisse,” before the sob rising in her throat rendered her incapable of speech. Then, leaving the wide-eyed footman to stare after her, she bolted up the stairs to tell Bridget where she was going.

 

Lady Hermione’s townhouse was a graceful three-story mansion on one of the most fashionable streets of Mayfair, and Maeve’s knock was answered by an elderly butler who was even more elegantly turned out than the young footman. “Miss Barrington, I presume,” he said with a barely concealed contempt which made Maeve all too aware that even her best bonnet and pelisse were sadly drab and out of date.

Lily had been the peacock of the family. Since Maeve had long ago accepted she could never hope to be anything but the “little brown sparrow” Lily had laughingly dubbed her, she’d devoted all her energy to her drawings and her music and worried little about her appearance. She wished now that she’d given a bit more thought to how she looked before presenting herself to a lady of fashion like Lady Hermione.

The stiff-necked butler led her to a small salon on the first floor and instructed her to wait while he informed his mistress of her arrival. Maeve seated herself on a green velvet loveseat and let her gaze wander around the lovely room. From the subtle greens and blues of the Axminster carpet and heavy damask draperies to the creamy silk wallpaper and delicate crystal chandelier, Lady Hermione’s salon was a masterpiece of understated elegance. Maeve cringed, aware of how out-of-place she must look in such an exquisite setting.

She had risen to her feet with the vague notion of quitting the scene before she could further embarrass herself, when the door of the salon burst open and Lady Hermione sailed through.

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