The ballroom of Mr. Reginald Hamilton’s townhouse was awash in bright, swirling colors. The lamps were all lit, bathing the room in a warm, sparkling glow. Musicians played a lively waltz. The scents of candles, perfume, and bodies was rich as half of London society danced their cares away. But above it all, the room buzzed with the sound of lords and ladies spreading the latest gossip.
Amelia Elphick wedged her way through it all, heart pounding terror in her throat, one hand clutching the not-so subtle curve of her stomach. Her simple cotton skirt and blouse marked her as an interloper amongst the finery, even as she struggled to keep her head high.
“Who is that?” she caught one of the ladies murmuring.
“Dear Lord, that’s the Marquess of Horsham’s daughter!” a second woman gasped.
Amelia blanched, pushing on through the crush. It was too late to turn back.
“Look at the state of her!” the first woman said.
“I heard she’s the governess here now,” the second woman informed her with a haughty sniff.
“That’s not what I meant,” the first replied. “Look at the state of her.”
Amelia dropped her trembling hand from her belly. She was well aware that she was past the point where her sins could go unnoticed, but this was her last chance. Nick was at this ball.
She spotted him several yards away, deep in conversation with her employer, Mr. Hamilton. Nicholas Hayworth stood tall and handsome, the aristocratic lines of his face sharp in the lamplight. The rich blue of his eyes and black of his hair drew the attention of every woman in the room. She knew his face so well, knew every contour of his nimble body. Even now, with shame threatening like a thundercloud, she wanted to embrace that body, to melt into him and have him tell her everything would be all right.
A different body, as tall as Nick’s but broader and more muscular, bumped into Amelia as she surged toward Nick. The man knocked her off balance, sending her spilling over her feet and his. She flailed for balance and hit a glass out of one of the fine guest’s hands. The man caught her, but the sound of shattering glass and a lady shrieking broke through the hum of gossip. All eyes snapped to her.
“Watch it there, Miss Amelia.”
Amelia raised wary eyes to the man who had both tripped and caught her. Her heart sank. Of all the Hamilton’s guests, she had bumbled into Mr. Quinlan, the American that had been staying in the house for the last few months. He smiled at her with his artless brown eyes and boyish grin and set her back on her feet. The hush that had followed her spill burst into a full roar of whispers.
“You all right?” Mr. Quinlan asked again as he brushed imaginary dirty off of her skirt.
All Amelia could manage was a tight nod. “I’m fine, thank you.”
It was a lie. She swallowed and turned, wincing, to Nick. He had seen her stumble. Everyone had seen her stumble. Nick sneered at her, his head tilted with aloof grace. She had to do this now, before it was too late. All eyes bored into her as she rushed through the gap that had formed in the crowd.
“Nick,” she kept her voice low as she reached him, “Nick I must speak with you. It is a matter of utmost urgency.”
She reached out to him. Nick backed away. His glance darted through the crowd that now judged him as much as her.
“I have nothing to say to you, Miss Elphick,” he hissed.
“Please, Nick!” The threat of tears pinched Amelia’s voice. “You know … you know what it’s come to.” She smoothed her hand over the bump of her belly.
Nick sniffed and backed further away. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
To his side, Reginald Hamilton’s back stiffened. His eyes went round with shock and disgust. “Miss Elphick!” he exclaimed in a whisper. “What is the meaning of this?”
A flash of boldness stiffened Amelia’s back and her resolve. “Ask Mr. Hayworth,” she said. “It is his doing.”
Nick blanched, shrinking from the eavesdropping guests. “How dare you!”
“No, Nick, how dare you!” Her attempt at bravado withered as the horror of the situation spilled over her. “I have your child growing inside of me and you know it. You have known it all along, yet you turn your back on me?”
“Miss Elphick,” Mr. Hamilton was red with rage, “Have I have entrusted the care of my precious little girls to a harlot?”
Before Amelia could summon a defense, Nick muttered, “Like mother, like daughter.”
The pitch of whispered gossip around her spun with such fevered intensity that Amelia thought she might swoon. Ripples of shock spread through the room as London’s finest stood on tip-toes to see the tragic farce unfold.
Amelia met Nick’s eyes with what was left of her pride, tears running two hot trails down her cheeks. “I loved you. We were to be married … before.”
“Yes, well that clearly isn’t the case now.” The smirk that bit at Nick’s beautiful face was too much to bear. Every promise he had made shattered.
“My family is not what it once was.” Amelia made one last attempt to stave off ruin, sniffling and wiping her eyes. “But you and I have been friends for too long to break over such things. I thought … I thought you still cared for me.”
“I care for certain parts of you.” Nick’s gaze flickered down.
“Mr. Hayworth,” Mr. Hamilton warned, “my house has seen enough scandal for one night. Pray do not make it double.”
“Forgive me, sir.” Nick bowed low to his host. “It was not my wish to disrupt your magnificent gathering. That, I believe, was the lady’s intent.” His stare pierced Amelia with such malevolence that her heart withered.
“I have no wish to make our private emergencies public,” Amelia countered.
“Our emergencies?” Nick balked. “I think not.”
Amelia’s chest constricted in panic. “You must help me, Nick,” she implored in barely more than a whisper. “You must-”
“There is nothing I must do,” he clipped his reply. “You have ruined yourself, now face the consequences.”
Amelia gulped, tears stinging. A sob caught in her throat as the weight of her sins piled down on her. She stole a desperate glance around the room. Men and women who had smiled and welcomed her at her coming-out just three short years ago now turned up their noses at her as if she was diseased. It was all because she couldn’t control her instincts. Her cheeks burned scarlet in humiliation.
With one last deep breath she laid her life at Nick’s feet.
“So you have no intention of fulfilling your responsibility toward….” She couldn’t say it. She couldn’t even think that Nick’s child was inside of her. “After all we-”
“Enough, Miss Elphick!” Mr. Hamilton snapped. “Go to your room! We will discuss this in the morning.”
Amelia gasped, blinking rapidly. She had heard that tone of voice, seen the same sharp glower from Mr. Hamilton when one of his daughters had disobeyed. She took another step back, lowering her head. It was no use resisting. Her great gamble had been a failure. Her life was over.
She turned to flee, but where she had hoped to find a quick escape, she was met by a wall of faces. Women and men of refinement and breeding, their jewels as bright as the scorn in their eyes, stared at her as though she was a guttersnipe loose amongst her betters. The turned-up lips, the pointed glares at the bulge of her stomach, the whispering behind hands and fans, flayed Amelia like a scourge.
It took all of her effort to put one foot in front of the other. Her whole body shook as she walked through the crowded ballroom, the last vestige of what her life had been. The musicians had stopped playing, the dancers had stopped dancing. Her heart had stopped beating. She couldn’t lift her head or raise her eyes to meet any of them. With all the awkward humiliation of her fall, she shuffled toward the door.
“Of course you’d expect that from Sophia deLaurent’s daughter,” someone murmured to her left.
“She always did give herself airs,” another voice chased her, “but ones true nature always shows through the gloss, doesn’t it.”
“Such a pity,” a male voice chuckled to her right. “I wonder how much she’ll charge once she’s taken her place on the market.”
Amelia burst into a sob, clapping a hand to her mouth. It was over. She didn’t care who she crashed into or whose toes she stepped on as she fled the room at a run.
She passed Mr. Quinlan, who was red with fury, at the door. His fury was no more than she deserved. She was furious with herself for the folly that had cast her out of the life she’d tried to resurrect for herself. But there was no hiding from the truth of who one really was at heart.
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Genre – Western Historical Romance
Rating – R
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