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Gentle Reader, I'll never forget the moment I first laid eyes
on the man who planned to murder me ...
Carlotta Anne Fairleigh was coming out. Unfortunately, what she was coming out of at the moment was both her elaborate ball gown and the second-story window of her aunt Diana's May-fair mansion. She might have managed the latter without incident if the silk flounces adorning the bodice of her gown hadn't become entangled in a nailhead protruding from the inside of the windowsill.
"Harriet!" Lottie whispered frantically. "Harriet, where are you? I'm in dire need of your assistance!"
She craned her neck to peer into the cozy sitting room she'd inhabited quite comfortably until only a few minutes ago. A fluffy white cat drowsed on the hearth, but Harriet, like all of Lottie's good fortune, seemed to have vanished.
"Where has that silly goose of a girl gone?" she muttered.
As she struggled to work the ruffle free of the nail, the slick soles of her kid slippers danced and skidded along the tree branch that jutted out just below her, vainly seeking purchase.
She stole a reluctant glance over her shoulder, her arms aching from the effort. The flagstones of the terrace below, which had seemed so attainable only minutes before, now seemed leagues away. She considered bellowing for a footman, but feared it was her brother who would come running and discover her predicament. Although only two years her elder, George had recently returned from his first Grand Tour of the Continent and was only too eager to lord his newfound sophistication over his baby sister.
The discordant strains of a string quartet tuning their instruments wafted out of the French windows on the north side of the house. In a very short time, Lottie knew she would hear the clatter of carriage wheels and the murmur of voices and welcoming laughter as the cream of London aristocracy arrived to herald her debut into their society. They would have no way of knowing their guest of honor was hanging out of a window two stories above, having forfeited her one stab at respectability.
She might not have found herself in such a predicament if Sterling Harlow, her brother-in-law and guardian, had hosted her debut at Devonbrooke House, his sprawling West End mansion. But his cousin Diana had cajoled him into conceding the honor to her.
It took no great leap of Lottie's overactive imagination to envision her aunt's guests gathered around her broken body as it lay sprawled on the flagstones. The women would press their scented kerchiefs to their lips to muffle their sobs while the men "tsked" and "tutted" beneath their breath, murmuring what a terrible pity it was that they would be forever deprived of her vivacious company. She gave the rich violet poplin of her skirt a rueful glance. If the gown didn't suffer too much wear on the way down, perhaps her family could bury her in it.
It was only too easy to imagine their reaction as well. Her sister, Laura, would hide her tear-blotched face in her husband's lapels, her tender heart broken for the last time by Lottie's foolhardiness. But most damning of all would be the bitter disappointment etched on her brother-in-law's handsome features. Sterling had spent considerable time, care, patience, and money to mold her into a lady. Tonight had been her last chance to prove to him that all of his efforts had not been in vain.
Lottie might have still been sitting in front of the dressing table in the sitting room had her best friend Harriet not come trotting into the room just as her aunt's abigail was putting the finishing touches on Lottie's hair.
Recognizing the hectic patches of color staining Harriet's cheeks, Lottie had quickly risen from the dressing table. "Thank you, Celeste. That will be all."
As soon as the maid had departed, Lottie had rushed to her friend's side. "Whatever is the matter, Harriet? You look as if you've swallowed a cat."
Although Harriet Dimwinkle wasn't overly plump, everything about her gave the impression of roundness -- her dimpled cheeks, the wire-rimmed spectacles shielding her fawn-colored eyes, the shoulders that remained slightly stooped despite hours of being forced to march around the parlor of Mrs. Lyttelton's School of Deportment for Fine Young Ladies with a heavy atlas upon her head. Her name alone had earned her merciless teasing from her fellow students. It hadn't helped that the girl was a tad bit ... well, dim.
Never one to tolerate injustice, Lottie had appointed herself Harriet's champion. She was loathe to admit, even to herself, that it was the very thickness of Harriet's wits that allowed the good-natured girl to go along with most of Lottie's schemes without worrying about the consequences.
Harriet clutched at Lottie's arm. "I just overheard two of the maids whispering. You'll never guess who's been living right next door practically under your aunt's nose for the past fortnight."
Lottie glanced out the window. The darkened house that shared the square was barely visible through the falling shadows of dusk. "No one, would be my guess. The place is as quiet as a tomb. We've been here since Tuesday and I've yet to see a living soul."
Harriet opened her mouth.
"Wait!" Lottie backed away from her friend, holding up a warning hand. "Never mind. I don't wish to know. The last thing I need tonight is Laura chiding me for being such an incorrigible busybody."
"But you're not a busybody," Harriet said, blinking like an owl behind her spectacles. "You're a writer. You've always said your sister lacked the imagination to make the distinction. Which is why I simply must tell you -- " One Night of Scandal
. Copyright © by Teresa Medeiros. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.