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The Maid of Fairbourne Hall

By:Julie Klassen
Chapter 1


August 1815

He is reading my letters now too. . . .

Margaret Elinor Macy sat at her dressing table, heart pounding. Her face in the looking glass shone pale beneath curly dark hair, her light blue eyes anxious. She glanced from her reflection to the letter in her hand. The seal had been pried open and unsuccessfully re-pressed. Her mother’s new husband had obviously begun checking her post—perhaps fearful the next invitation she received would not be to a ball but rather to take refuge in another house, out of reach and out from under his power.

It was bad enough when the footman began following her everywhere she went, whether the occasion warranted a servant’s escort or not. Then an hour ago she had asked to wear her aunt’s pearl necklace, only to be refused.

“Too many footpads on the streets at night,” Sterling Benton had said. Though she and her mother had always worn their better jewelry before.

Sterling had locked in his safe almost all the Macy family valuables “for safekeeping.” Privately Margaret guessed he’d sold some pieces and locked the rest away so she couldn’t barter them for passage somewhere far away.

He had long since ceased granting her any allowance, claiming strained finances. That might be true, but Margaret knew Sterling had other motives for keeping her dependent on him for every shilling. Though soon to inherit a large sum from her great-aunt, at the moment Margaret was unable to buy herself a hairpin, let alone passage anywhere.

She regarded her wan reflection once more. She was not looking forward to the ball at the Valmores’, though in the past masquerades had been her favorite. She loved the disguises, the mystery, the chance to flirt behind a mask, to pretend she was someone she was not. For weeks she had planned to appear as a milkmaid, a costume the Duchess of Queensberry had donned for a formal portrait, sparking a rage of paintings of gentlewomen in servants’ attire. Margaret guessed she would not be the only “milkmaid” in attendance that evening.

Her coiffeur was a concoction of dark hair piled high with a long spiral curl gracing each side of her neck. But she was having second thoughts about it. She had relished the notion of fooling the other guests until masks were removed halfway through the ball. At the moment, however, the very idea of costumes seemed frivolous. Besides, the dark hair did not flatter her complexion.

Reaching up, she yanked the wig from her head.

“Joan!” she called sharply.

The second housemaid had doubled as young lady’s maid ever since Sterling had dismissed Margaret’s abigail. The experienced lady’s maid, Miss Durand, was busy arranging Mother’s hair. Margaret sniffed. As if it mattered how well a married woman looked. Her future did not depend on appearing her prettiest that night.

Joan, a thin, practical housemaid in her midtwenties, hurried in carrying a lace cap and the cape she had been pressing. She tripped over Margaret’s dressing gown, bunched on the carpet where Margaret had let it fall. Why had Joan not picked it up?

“Do be careful,” Margaret snapped. “I don’t want my cape ruined or the cap crushed.”

“Yes, miss.” As Joan righted herself, irritation flashed in her eyes.

Well, she had only herself to blame. After all, it was Joan’s job to tidy the room and care for Margaret’s clothes.

“I need you to dress my hair,” Margaret said. “I have decided not to wear the wig after all.”

“But . . .” The maid bit her lip, then sighed. “Yes, miss.”

Joan had secured Margaret’s blond hair in a tight knot to accommodate the wig, but now she would need to unpin, curl, arrange, and re-pin her hair with soft height and curls at her temples to flatter Margaret’s somewhat round face. She hoped a simple housemaid was up to the task. Margaret guessed she would have to talk her through the process.

Margaret herself had become quite adept at arranging her sister’s hair. Enjoyed it, actually. Fortunately, Caroline had not yet “come out” and was not attending the ball, otherwise three Macy women would never be ready in time.

Joan unpinned the knot and began brushing out Margaret’s fair locks, using, Margaret thought, a bit more force than necessary.

“Gentle, Joan. I have no wish to be bald.”

“Yes, miss.”

Margaret had often been told her fair golden hair was her best feature. She could not, on this night of nights, cover it up. She would need all the appeal she could muster if her plan had any hope of succeeding.

Margaret entered wearing the simple blue gown, apron, and mask, with a small lace cap atop her glorious hair and a milk pail in hand. Studiously ignoring the young man beside her, she surveyed the ballroom.

The goddess Diana laughed with a sultan in turban and flowing robes. Egyptians in headdresses, jewels spangling their foreheads, danced with gypsies. Punch’s wife mingled with beggars. Some people sacrificed anonymity for attractiveness. Others, especially those wearing the ubiquitous dominoes—masks over their faces and hooded capes—were unrecognizable. The gay music, colorful costumes, laughter, and jesting created a carnival-like atmosphere. But the jovial feeling did not reach Margaret and did nothing to ease her anxiety.

She saw him across the ballroom, and her muscles tensed—a lithe cat fixing upon her prey. Yet she feared she would be the one left injured.

Lewis Upchurch wore a rakish patch over one eye, but was otherwise perfectly turned out in fine evening attire of black tailcoat, pristine white waistcoat and cravat, knee-length pantaloons, and polished shoes. He stood talking to a man and woman. The man she recognized as Lewis’s friend Piers Saxby. He wore a tricorn hat and kerchief, looking very like engravings she had seen of Blackbeard and other pirates of old. Margaret was acquainted with Saxby’s sister, Lavinia. The two girls had been at school together. Perhaps she might inquire after Lavinia as an excuse to approach the trio.

But she would need to tread carefully. Lewis Upchurch might be a good catch, but he would not be an easy one, and she was by no means certain of her ability to snare him. For a moment she stood where she was, shocked by her mercenary thoughts.

A few years ago, when she learned of the inheritance coming to her upon her twenty-fifth birthday, she’d thought she had no need to marry. Great Aunt Josephine, a spinster herself, had seen to that. Margaret had planned to take her time, marry for love or not at all. But with the odious man beside her determined to spoil that plan, she was willing to compromise. She would never marry a man she loathed, but she could marry charming, handsome Lewis Upchurch. She had been quite infatuated with him once. Had even rejected his brother in hopes of winning him. And Lewis, she believed, had admired her. He had certainly flirted with her.

But then her beloved father had died, and Margaret had lost interest in Lewis Upchurch and society at large. She had remained home in mourning for more than a year. When she had reentered society earlier this season, Lewis had shown renewed if sporadic interest in her, but nothing had come of it. Was she too late?

Pushing back her shoulders, Margaret removed her mask and steeled her resolve. Enticing a proposal from Lewis Upchurch was her best hope, her only plan for escaping the Benton house and the vile snare set for her by Sterling and his nephew.

As if her thoughts, her intentions, had been declared aloud, the young man beside her stiffened. She risked a glance at Marcus Benton and found him following the direction of her gaze across the room. His wide-set catlike eyes narrowed. He looked at her, smile smug beneath his pug nose. He was not a tall man, only an inch or so taller than she. Dark tousled hair fell over his forehead in imitation of casual ease, yet she knew his valet had spent half an hour arranging it. She had once thought Marcus handsome, but no longer.

He took her arm, but she shrugged it off. Inhaling deeply, Margaret strode across the ballroom, empty now between dances. At the head of the room, musicians relaxed over punch and ale, laughing amongst themselves. Directly ahead of her, Lewis Upchurch faced Mr. Saxby and the woman she did not recognize. Like Margaret, her face was exposed. She wore the clingy Grecian robes of a Diana. Margaret would have liked to speak to Lewis alone, but she dared not wait or her courage would fail her. Perhaps the other couple would excuse themselves.

Margaret bolstered herself by remembering that Lewis had shown particular interest in her in the past, seeking her out for dancing, escorting her in to supper on several occasions, calling the next morning as etiquette required. Lewis had been pleasant and attentive, not to mention heartbreakingly handsome. But he had never proposed. Perhaps she had not encouraged him properly. After all, she had been in no hurry to marry.

Until now.

Besides Marcus Benton, only one man had ever proposed marriage to her, and that had been two years ago, before Lewis returned from the West Indies and turned her head. The memory of the way she had coldly and abruptly rejected Nathaniel Upchurch, Lewis’s younger brother, still brought a stab of guilt. Nathaniel would have married her once, but she had certainly crushed any feelings he held for her. At all events, Nathaniel was far away in Barbados, and had been for nearly two years, managing the family’s sugar interests in Lewis’s stead. Even Nathaniel—meek, pale, studious, bespectacled younger son that he was—would have been a better fate than Marcus Benton.