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Authors: Summer Devon

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BOOK: Powder of Love (I)
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Mr. Reed and Mr. Clermont.

She shouldn’t have let them into her parlor, and now she couldn’t stop thinking about Mr. Reed’s hands, for heaven’s sake. Or his shoulders. She’d noticed them as well during their visit. His form was muscular, which wasn’t the style at the moment.

Rosalie went to her room, determined to shake her strange distraction and change into an afternoon gown.

She’d wear something less restricting, she thought. She didn’t bother to summon her maid. After struggling to undo the tiny buttons, she threw off her gown and collapsed on the bed for a moment. She ran her hands down her corset.

Such a glum man, Mr. Reed. Why didn’t she have that interesting twist in her belly as she thought of Mr. Clermont, with his easy, sparkling smile and thick, blond hair—he’d obviously appreciated her.

He and Mr. Reed had known each other at school, Mr. Clermont had told her, though they hadn’t been friends. They didn’t appear especially friendly with each other now.

Mr. Reed, despite the interesting handshake, had not been particularly amiable during the visit. He’d been more like a man sitting in a doctor’s waiting room than a visitor to a lady’s parlor. While Mr. Clermont occasionally broke the silence between her bouts of polite chatter to ask about her adopted city of New York, Mr. Reed had stared around the room, gazed at the paintings, and didn’t speak, his dark eyes shadowed. His mouth had been drawn in a straight line, yet his lips were still full. Odd how she could vividly recall the details of a man’s lips days after meeting him.

She fought the languid desire to take off her corset and chemise, and she pushed herself off the bed. Best to go with the uncomplicated brown and cream gown. Something easy to don so she could throw it over her head and yank it on quickly before she gave in to the temptation of getting into bed.

But the thought of Mr. Reed still tugged at her. He had no right to haunt her like this when he’d barely tried to be agreeable during that visit.

Maybe he’d heard that nearly silent, scowling men with unruly black hair were all the rage with hostesses. Or perhaps he hated her sitting room and her refreshments.

Never mind. They were gone, and she had been the one to push them out of her house. Not literally, of course, but she knew how to get rid of undesirable men.

It had been difficult. First she’d allowed her conversation to lapse into yawn-inducing dullness. She spoke of lace and bobbles and the price of shoes and watched Clermont’s eyes glaze over. Interestingly enough, Mr. Reed’s expression didn’t change, although she wondered if perhaps she’d caught a small smile at one point.

And Mr. Reed’s other smile. She’d forgotten it. Recalling it made her grin like a lunatic.

He hadn’t been stern the whole time. Late in the visit, Rosalie had been sitting on the bog oak sofa, and Mr. Clermont had joined her there, gradually shifted closer to her. He’d actually brushed his fingertips across her nape, making some remark about the way she bundled her hair loosely.

Rosalie had twisted away from him. She’d widened her eyes and contorted her mouth—a comic contortion—aiming the look of mock alarm at Miss Renshaw.

The older lady hadn’t noticed. Rosalie’s companion was present in body and her brown eyes were open, but her mind, as usual, had wandered to more interesting places.

But Mr. Reed had met her eyes and must have seen Rosalie’s silly grimace. That had to explain his sudden grin—a real one that lit his eyes and showed white, nearly even teeth. His expression was unexpectedly sweet, entirely transforming his forbidding features. Of course she had to grin back, and their exchanged smiles had felt like a shared amusement, a joke they both appreciated.

The smile had vanished almost at once when Clermont touched Rosalie’s arm and murmured some more compliments at her—the man was a confirmed murmurer.

She’d managed to drive the two men out of her parlor soon after that by using her proven tactic of more boring conversation followed by some plain speaking. Nothing so unladylike as telling them to go away, of course.

But would she have pushed so hard to make them leave if Mr. Reed had sat that close to her? Absurd notion, but the thought of him so near her that she might feel his breath on her neck, taste it with her mouth, made her own breath come fast and shallow, causing something inside her to stir and grow heavy.

Mr. Reed might have been standing right in front of her, smiling, his strong fingers reaching to touch her. Perhaps if
his
hand trailed across her nape…

“No more of this,” she said aloud.

Determined to shake her strange mood, she rang for Murphy to help with the buttons in the back of the gown and to fix her chignon. The chatty maid was a marvel at driving unwelcome thoughts from one’s head.

* * *

The rest of the afternoon had no more strange sensations or visitors, unless one counted the cursing Italian carriers who came to the back entrance with several wooden crates.

Rosalie ordered the crates to be placed in the library and then forgot about them. She had no idea what else Johnny had left her—and after the peculiar restlessness she’d felt after touching the box, she wasn’t eager to find out.

After dinner, Rosalie sat in the drawing room, sorting letters, when Miss Renshaw knocked firmly on the door and strode in without waiting for a response.

“Is something the matter?” Rosalie asked. Miss Renshaw usually scratched at a door and entered a room as if unsure of her welcome.

“Ah, Rosalie! Isn’t it all marvelous?”

Rosalie had been requesting Miss Renshaw use her Christian name for a year, without success. She put down the letters and examined her companion. As always, Miss Renshaw wore a cheerful expression, but not her usual unfocused smile. Her eyes were hungry and alert. With her rather beaky nose, she resembled a fierce hunting bird.

Miss Renshaw closed her eyes and shivered as if she had twisted her whole body into some kind of new, tight-fitting gown. Her cheeks, normally rather pale, were almost as rosy as her pink brocade gown.

“Miss Renshaw? Are you well?” A sudden unpleasant suspicion seized Rosalie. “What have you been doing since dinner?”

“I was straightening your desk. And looking through two crates of his lordship’s…er… There is a sculpture that quite made me blush.”

Beels came in with the fresh bottle of ink Rosalie had asked him to fetch. Miss Renshaw, already glowing like a lamp, brightened. “Beels.” She gave him a wide, toothy smile. He put down the bottle and took a step back. Miss Renshaw laughed, a loud peal unlike her usual polite ripple of laughter. “No really, I shan’t harm you. I declare, you are skittish. Mr. Beels.”

“Miss Renshaw. Emily.” Rosalie spoke sharply to get her attention. “This is important. Did you look in the box? I mean, a red, well-polished little box on my desk?”

“The wooden one. Yes. My dear Rosalie. What is your Christian name, Beels? Yes, yes, I recall. Horace. The so-wise poet. A lovely name.”

Beels started to edge toward the door. Miss Renshaw went after him and clasped his sleeve with her pale fingers. “Please. Do stay. I would so like something cool and refreshing.” Her gaze fixed on his mouth, she inched closer to him.

“Ma’am. Miss,” he pleaded, looking over Miss Renshaw’s head at Rosalie.

Rosalie nodded to him. “You may go. Please bring us some lemonade.” Panic and laughter clawed at her throat—she wasn’t sure which was going to win the battle inside her.

Miss Renshaw’s overbright eyes gleamed. Rosalie called after Beels. “And if Cook can spare some ice, please put a few shards in the lemonade. I believe it should be made as cold as possible.”

He left. Miss Renshaw stood swaying for a moment before she drifted to the sofa.

“Miss Renshaw, this is important. Did you open the box?” Rosalie asked as soon as the door closed.

“Yes. And the other box inside was difficult to open too. I couldn’t even open the little container. When I shook it, I heard a tiny rattle. Perhaps they were beans? I do wonder what was in that, my dear. I feel so very odd.” Miss Renshaw ran her fingertips over her mouth, as if feeling the shape and texture of her thin lips. “Some dust was on the outside of the container. It was so…” Her voice trailed off, and she heaved another deep sigh. “It’s lovely. Gold and purple dust. Heavy substance, light dust. Whatever is inside created that dust, I believe, but I don’t think it’s an opiate, for I’m not at all sleepy. I do think it contains something powerful, however.”

“I think so as well.” Rosalie remembered Mr. Dorsey and his dire warnings. Perhaps he hadn’t exaggerated after all.

Her companion was back on her feet. She spread her thin arms wide and threw back her head, tottering a little like a child who’d turned in circles until she was too dizzy to stand upright. As a rule, Miss Renshaw had very little conversation. She was even quieter than Mr. Reed. Now she chattered and looked about, alert and without a trace of her sleepy manner.

“I don’t believe I’ve felt this alive in years. I’m so very hungry.”

“Please, sit down. I’ll order some food as well as lemonade. Cook just made a poppy seed cake.”

“I couldn’t sit still, and I’m not hungry for something so silly as cake. No, no, I don’t want that. Oh. Something more. Something new.” She shivered again. And her hands strayed to her throat to stroke the skin there, then slowly, slowly traveled over her breasts.

Miss Renshaw’s eyes were closed, and she seemed not to care that a horrified Rosalie watched her.

Beels returned with the lemonade.

He put down the tray and glanced at the door. Rosalie jumped to her feet in case Miss Renshaw tried to go after him again. Watching her companion, she said, “Thank you, Beels. That will be all for now.”

He didn’t run from the room, but he moved more quickly than his usual stately progress.

Miss Renshaw picked up a glass and pressed it to her forehead. “Cold. Perfect.” She pulled a chip of ice from the drink and sucked on it. Water dribbled down her wrists and chin. She sucked harder.

Rosalie stared. Miss Renshaw usually had exquisite manners. The lady nibbled her food and barely touched a roll with her fingers at meals. Now she gulped down the lemonade as if she were dying of thirst.

“Delicious,” she said brightly. “I’m quite refreshed, and now I think I shall go for a stroll.”

“No.” Rosalie’s panic surfaced. “You can’t leave when you’re under the influence of this peculiar substance. I think it best you go to your bedroom and sleep.”

“Sleep? La, Rosalie, it is madness to sleep when I feel this—It was this substance, you say? I’m alive for the first time since I was a girl.” She laughed. “Sleep? No, thank you.”

“Please. Miss Renshaw. You are not yourself tonight, and I think you’ll regret going out.” She hoped she’d put enough iron in her voice to make it clear it was a threat.

“No.” Miss Renshaw still smiled brightly.

Rosalie tried again. “If you leave this house in this state, I will have to find a new companion. I will dismiss you.”

“Really?” Miss Renshaw raised her thin brows. “I must be behaving very badly, then.” She didn’t sound at all concerned.

“It isn’t your fault.” Rosalie decided to tell the whole truth. “You see, the dust that you touched awakens certain animal appetites in people.”

“Aha. That explains a great deal!” Miss Renshaw laughed. “How amusing to think we are animals after all. How long will this effect last?”

“I don’t know, Miss Renshaw. I wish I did.” She had the appalling thought that the effect would never go away, but then she recalled Mr. Dorsey, who’d obviously opened the box and overcome its influence. For a horrifying moment, she imagined him in an aroused state similar to this, but pushed the image out of her mind.

Miss Renshaw still pirouetted toward the door, and Rosalie had to speak loudly to make herself heard over the waltz her companion hummed. “But I hope you understand it is for your own good that I will, um, put a guard outside your door.”

The companion’s brightness dimmed. “My own good,” she said. “All my life, everything that has been for my own good has not been at all amusing or interesting. Did you know that?”

“Miss Renshaw. Emily. I am sorry. I understand what you are saying. But do you truly wish to become disgraced? Lose your good name and possibly even your virtue?” Good God, she sounded like her father when he had lectured her about her meetings with Cousin Johnny, but Rosalie pressed on. “What might happen should you give in to baser impulses?”

“Yes, yes, I am a grown woman on the shady side of thirty-five.” Miss Renshaw was waspish now. “I’ve seen enough of life to understand disgrace. If I indulged in sins of the flesh.” She stopped to take a deep breath and gave another visible shudder. “If I tarry alone with a man, he might put himself inside me. Pshaw. It’s such a shame.”

Rosalie nodded, though she wasn’t sure what she was agreeing with. “I apologize for not telling you about the strange box earlier. I suppose I didn’t believe it, but now I think I must.” She sipped her glass of lemonade, still watching her beaming companion, who’d shed her shoes and loosened her bodice. “I’m sorry you touched the substance.”

“Heavens, I’m not sorry, Rosalie. I shall never forget how I feel this evening. So entirely—alive.” Miss Renshaw drifted to the French doors that led to the back garden. “I hope you won’t mind if I go to the rear of the house? I shan’t go out in public. I promise. I want to see the stars.”

Rosalie put down her glass on top of the letter from her mother she’d just been reading. “I’ll join you.”

“No, please don’t worry. Now that I understand…I’ll be back to my old self soon, I suppose,” Miss Renshaw said, almost in her usual vague and apologetic manner. Perhaps the chemical or whatever it could be was already wearing off. “I would like to be alone, if you don’t mind.”

Chapter Two

After Miss Renshaw slipped out to the walled back garden, Rosalie donned gloves and went into the library. She held her breath as she picked up the box and put it in the bottom desk drawer that locked.

Would throwing away the gloves be excessive? She recalled the ecstatic look on Miss Renshaw’s face and at once wrapped the gloves in some newspaper before wedging them into the bottom of the trash container next to the desk.

She wondered if she should start a fire and burn the box. But what if the smoke carried the potent substance into the air? Now that would be a sight. The entire city infected with the powder. Rosalie again felt the strange hysteria, a mix of fear and amusement.

* * *

After reflecting on various horrific scenarios the powder might create, she climbed the stairs to Miss Renshaw’s room to see if the lady required assistance. Her companion still hadn’t returned.

A stab of guilt hit Rosalie. She should not have left poor Miss Renshaw alone for so long. What if the drugged lady forgot her promise not to leave the garden? She might wander out the back gate. Rosalie went to the bedroom window and looked out over the garden. It was too dark to see anything, but a light glowed in the window of the mews, which lay not far beyond the garden. Horses reading? No.

The mews. The stables had living quarters for—

Men.

Rosalie almost tripped on her skirts as she hurried back down to the parlor. The French window stood open. Moonlight silvered the stones of the path and the tops of the trees, but threw much of the small garden into deeper shadow. She moved along the path toward the back wall, and the wall seemed to move. Oh no. That pale object that moved wasn’t the wall.

The dark bulk of the man was mostly clothed as he covered the moaning female, and only part of his body showed—his buttocks.

Rosalie knew who he was with even before she caught sight of a rose-colored sleeve—Miss Renshaw’s gown. The pink arm wrapped tight around the body of the man. For several moments, Rosalie watched, fascinated and horrified.

That was the ultimate act—a man’s buttocks waggling around? No, more like flexing rhythmically.

Her stomach flipped with anxiety. Should she scream or sneak away? First she had to discover if this was something Miss Renshaw wanted and not an attack.

“Harder,” the lady moaned. “Yes, yes.”

That question was answered.

Yet here, in the open? Such an activity in her own garden? And poor Miss Renshaw would never do this in her right mind. Again Rosalie wondered if she should cry out. But it was obviously too late to save the woman’s virtue.

If the two participants had joined body parts, what could she do? She tried to recall the process Johnny had described. When did the possible baby production occur? Too late, she imagined. Hard to think that seeds from the man hadn’t spilled by now.

She backed away, not trying to hide her presence, but the rhythm of the writhing bodies didn’t change.

When she reached the door, she went into the parlor to await Miss Renshaw and possibly forestall any servant who would go out that door and head down that path. Rosalie stretched out on the sofa to wait.

When she woke, she discovered someone had covered her with a blanket and it was daylight.

“Did you have trouble sleeping?” Miss Renshaw stood nearby, her hand resting on a tray that lay on the table. Steam rose from the coffeepot and fresh muffins.

Rosalie gaped up at her companion, who looked as she always did: mousy brown and gray hair smoothed under the cap. A puce-colored gown. Absolutely no sign of debauchery. No, perhaps Miss Renshaw’s cheeks were pinker than usual. But it wasn’t a blush of shame. Some sort of irritation perhaps.

“I’m sorry if you didn’t…sleep well,” Miss Renshaw said. She wore her normal, vague smile. “I slept like a log.”

Rosalie sat up, and the covers slipped to the floor. “Miss Renshaw, are you well?”

“It’s strange that you… I am coming down with something. My limbs ache, and my skin…” She gave a slight cough, the smallest of sounds that she made when something slightly embarrassed her.

Rosalie swallowed to banish a wave of nausea. “You don’t recall last night? You touched the box. Remember?”

“I felt odd. Not disagreeable, but odd. And my dreams…pleasant, but…” Her voice died away, and now her face definitely reddened. “Very naughty…” She wore the faintest smile.

Rosalie hated to do it, but she had to. “What if? Uh. Um. What if they weren’t dreams?”

Miss Renshaw’s smile faltered. “You had a disturbed night, my dear. Sleeping here and… Perhaps you need more rest.”

“I wonder, should I tell you what happened?” she whispered. Yes, she had to.

At that moment, Beels came into the room. He jerked back, away from Rosalie’s companion when he noticed her. The ends of his mouth quivered. “Flowers, miss,” he said, holding up a rather bedraggled nosegay of roses. “Hawes wished to deliver them to Miss Renshaw himself, but I deemed it best he not enter the house.”

“Hawes?” Rosalie squeaked. “The coachman?”

It made sense, of course. The mews.

“Hawes?” Miss Renshaw whispered and went very pale. “Hawes. Oh no. Hawes. And…and… Is his Christian name John?”

“I wouldn’t know, miss.” He didn’t sneer, but Rosalie supposed that was only because he’d been too well trained.

There was only one cup on the tray. “Beels, bring me another cup for the coffee. At once,” she said sharply. After he left, she helped her companion to the sofa. The poor lady’s eyes were closed tight.

Rosalie pressed her hand. “The dream. Did it involve intimacies? With Hawes?”

Miss Renshaw’s lips quivered. “Yes. With…”

It could have been worse, Rosalie supposed. He was not a bad person, not like the coachman next door, who had a tendency to drink too much, use the whip too often, and act in an unpleasant manner with the maids. “He’s a good man. He won’t gossip.”

The older lady kept her eyes closed, but she did not fall into hysterics. “I saw him,” she said in a low voice. “He was coming back from the, ah, privy. And I told him the air was too wonderful to go indoors. He agreed. Particularly in his room, he said. I gave him permission to come through the iron gate. The garden. To look at the fountain. And we talked, and then I, ah, I think…I told him I wanted him to kiss me. I hadn’t been kissed, you see. I hadn’t. But if it wasn’t a dream…” Her voice grew thick with unshed tears. “Good gracious, I’ve been kissed…”

She gave a choked sob. “It-it was… The whole thing was so…” She shook her head. “I will never forgive myself. Never.”

“It wasn’t your fault. Please, Emily, you were under the influence of a powerful drug. No one could blame you.”

The lady pulled out a neat little handkerchief and broke down completely. “Oh no. It’s terrible. Unforgivable.” She took to her heels and flew from the room, slamming into Beels, who must have been listening at the door.

* * *

Rosalie longed to pretend nothing had happened, but someone had to make sure the man in question would stay quiet. She considered sending a vaguely threatening note, but wasn’t sure Hawes could read. Summoning him wouldn’t be a good plan. Miss Renshaw might see him in the house, which would not be good for her overwrought emotional state, not to mention the servants had enough material for gossip.

Rosalie decided to go through the garden and cross the cobblestone yard to find Hawes.

It was late enough in the morning that the mews and stables were fairly quiet. Looking around to make sure no one watched, she skirted the pile of hay and manure, climbed the rickety wooden steps, and rapped on the door of the small apartment.

“Come on in,” a muffled voice shouted.

Hawes sat at a bare wooden table, eating eggs from a chipped plate. At the sight of Rosalie, he jumped to his feet and yanked off his brown woolen cap, revealing a head of uncombed graying hair that blended into his side whiskers and mustache. He wore only a plain white shirt and trousers, held up with cheery blue braces. Taller than Rosalie by only an inch or so, he must have outweighed her by a good two stone, all of it muscle, she guessed.

“Take a seat, miss?” he mumbled, clutching and working the hat between both hands.

She shook her head and launched straight into speech before she lost what was left of her nerve. Best to use her reputation again as a blunt female. “Last night Miss Renshaw and you had a…an interlude. It was due to some unfortunate drug she had accidentally taken, Mr. Hawes.”

“Naw.” His voice was hoarse with shock. “I wouldn’t guess she was under the influence. She didn’t sound slurred or nothing. She was like herself, only…happier.”

“It was something other than alcohol. I think it best you forget it happened and never speak of this matter to anyone. I feel responsible for her accidental dosing, so I will certainly help her should there be consequences.” She gulped at her own words. Consequences meant a baby. Oh heavens, she wished she knew what to do. No wonder her father fell back on anger so often.

He scowled, and the skin under his left eye twitched slightly. “I don’t wanna forget it. Best thing ever happened. I won’t talk none to anybody. Her reputation’s safe. But don’t tell me it didn’t happen. I’ve had girls in my time, but none so sweet and kind and full of life.”

Rosalie flashed on the image of his naked bum moving. “I’m not sure I should hear this,” she said firmly. “I’m absolutely certain no one else should.”

He shuffled his feet, clad in heavy boots. He hadn’t dressed in his uniform. “She’s a good person, is Emily. If she’ll have me, it would make me the happiest guy ever.”

She stared at him. The thought that he might actually want marriage hadn’t occurred to her. Rosalie clasped her hands to stop herself from gesturing around the small one-room apartment with the narrow, unmade bed, the rough table. “Mr. Hawes…you must understand…Miss Renshaw was born to an important family, and even though she has lost her former position in the world, she is a genteel lady.”

“Yah, I understand. But see—” He stopped, and she knew he wanted to spit, his usual habit when at a loss for words. Thank goodness he didn’t inside his room.

“Go on,” she said gently. No point in imitating her father any longer. She never could maintain righteous indignation for more than a few minutes.

“This is New York. It ain’t England. She can say ‘get lost’ to me, but you can’t, if you’ll excuse me, miss.” He sounded apologetic, not belligerent.

He’d taken so much of the wind out of her, Rosalie wished she’d said yes to the chair he’d offered. She chewed her bottom lip. “You’re absolutely correct. And I’m so glad you’re an honorable man.” Hesitantly she asked, “But, Mr. Hawes, can you base a whole life together on a half-hour interlude?”

She didn’t expect him to answer the question, but he did. “More’n an hour, to be honest.” A shadow of a leer crossed his face. “And, miss, you think I ain’t noticed her all the time I’ve worked for you? All the time she does errands and I go along? Always thought she was a fine figure and bright smile. And when she looks at a man with—”

She felt her face turn hot and hastily held up a hand. “You were right. This is not actually my business.”

He scowled and looked away. “I’ll understand if you turn me out, miss.”

“Oh, nonsense.” She gave up. Heaving a sigh, she dropped down onto the chair. “The fact is that her unusual behavior was the result of a drug, as I said. Didn’t you suspect she was not herself?”

He scratched his grizzled cheek and didn’t answer.

Rosalie spoke more quietly. “She’s terribly upset—she thought it was a dream.”

“Huh.” His face drew in, as if the light inside him had gone out.

She found herself adding, “Although she did call the dream pleasant.”

He grinned down at the blunt fingers clutching the cap.

She knew she had to act the proper lady again. “Please do not engage in such activities again. Not before marriage.”

His grin broadened. Clearly the man felt she’d given him permission to woo Miss Renshaw and was delighted with the world.

Rosalie wished she could again order him to forget the whole thing, even though true warmth showed in that smile of his. She felt sorry for him. Miss Renshaw would likely want to forget any memories of the night he cherished.

Rosalie bid him good-bye, shook the square, browned hand he thrust out at her. Those tobacco-stained fingers against Miss Renshaw’s pale skin… Rosalie hadn’t seen that detail, but her imagination was too sharp this morning.

She went down the rough-hewn stairway, past the fragrance of leather, horse manure, and sweat, and through the iron gate to her own yard.

If Miss Renshaw decided to accept the coachman, this might be the path she would take every morning if she kept up her duties as a lady’s companion. Well, why not?

Evenings above the stables might be better for Miss Renshaw than evenings sitting in your parlor, smiling at nothing until it was time for sleep
, an evil little voice said. She suspected it was the voice of Cousin Johnny.

She changed into a morning gown and sat down to write letters. Miss Renshaw had retreated to her room and refused to come out.

“Shall I throw these away?” The maid indicated the pile of roses Hawes had sent over that had been ignored.

“No, please.” How horrid it would be if he saw the flowers in the dustbin. “Get me the Sevres vase, and I’ll do what I can to save them.”

She pulled off the outer leaves and recalled the flowers were the same dusty pink as Miss Renshaw’s gown. Had Hawes noticed that? It occurred to her that the flowers must have cost him a great chunk of his week’s wages.

Enough. She had more serious things to deal with than some abandoned flowers. Someone else must know how to destroy or somehow alter the wretched
amprodizic
or whatever it was called.

She’d contact the two men who clearly knew what was in that box. But she suddenly realized she had discarded their calling cards. How did one find the direction of a rake?

She called for her driver. “Good morning, Hawes,” she said in a loud, firm voice as the footman held open the carriage door and Murphy, Rosalie’s maid, climbed in first.

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