She came awake with a start, hating the familiar too-rapid beat of her pulse and the breathless sensation that always accompanied the dream. She pushed aside the covers and sat up, needing to walk, to move, anything to work off the unwholesome energy that always followed in the wake of the nightmarish images.
She stood, wincing a little when she felt the tenderness between her legs. Memories of the tryst in the conservatory flooded through her, mercifully pushing aside the worst fragments from the nightmare but bringing with them a new set of fears.
She pulled on her dressing gown, shoved her feet into her slippers, and began to pace. What had she done tonight? How had she managed to become involved in an intimate liaison with the one man who could destroy her? A man who was friends with the Scotland Yard detective who had investigated the murder of Lord Gavin? What on earth had she been thinking?
She stopped, all too well aware of the answer to that question. She had begun to fall in love with Anthony from that very first moment at the Hammond ball when he had looked at her as if he knew her deepest secrets. She was going to lose her heart to him. She knew that as surely as she knew her real name. Perhaps it was already too late.
Do not think about the future. Your love is doomed. You can never tell him the truth about yourself, and you will never be able to marry a man unless you reveal your secret to him. It would not be right.
No gentleman of Anthony’s rank in Society would marry a murderess. If nothing else, he had his family’s good name to consider.
Not that he was likely ever to fall in love with her. He had given his heart to Fiona Risby. He would certainly marry someday—in his position it was expected—but when the time came he would look much higher than a woman with no background or fortune.
Live for the here and now; it is all you will ever have with Anthony.
She halted in the middle of the bedroom, contemplating another glass of brandy. The one she had taken after Anthony had brought her home from the Lorrington house had proved surprisingly effective. She had not expected to sleep tonight, but evidently the dramatic events of the day and evening had exhausted her more than she realized. Another glass might allow her a few more hours of slumber.
She went to the window and stood looking out into the night. The scene was dimly lit by the streetlamps and a pale moon. Directly across from the front door of Number Twelve stood a cloaked figure, her face obscured by a black net veil. She looked like a wraith that had drifted out of the mist-shrouded trees.
The poor, desperate widow who had been forced to turn to prostitution had returned. Louisa was surprised to see her back. Evidently the woman had not yet learned that customers looking to buy what she was selling did not frequent this part of town. Or perhaps she was too frightened to go into the rougher neighborhoods. She was no doubt new to the streetwalking profession.
On impulse Louisa whirled around and let herself out into the hall. She tiptoed downstairs and went into the study. Turning up a lamp, she unlocked a desk drawer and took out the small amount of money that she and Emma kept there for household incidentals. She stuffed the coins and some banknotes into an envelope. Picking up a pen, she jotted an address on the back of the envelope.
In the front hall she pulled on a cloak, opened the front door, and peered out.
The woman in the black cloak and veil was still there, standing in the shadows cast by a tree. She went very still when she saw Louisa walk out onto the front step and pause in the lamplight.
“Good evening,” Louisa said quietly.
The woman reacted as if she had been addressed by a ghost. She started violently, took a step back, turned, and began to walk quickly away.
“Wait, please.” Louisa hurried after her. “I am not going to summon a constable. I just wanted to give you some money and an address.”
Evidently concluding that she was not going to be left alone, the woman halted and turned around, a cornered creature at bay.
Louisa stopped a few steps away and held out the envelope.
“There is enough money in this to see you through the month if you are careful with it. There is an address on the back of the envelope. If you go there and ask for help, you will receive it with no questions asked. It is an establishment run by a woman whose only goal is to assist other women like you.”
“Other women like me?” The woman stiffened.
“Women who have been forced onto the streets.”
“How dare you imply that I am a common streetwalker? Who do you think you are?”
The words were low and charged with a seething fury. The voice was that of an educated woman who had been reared in respectable circles.
“I’m sorry,” Louisa said, chagrined. “I meant no offense.”
Without another word the woman walked off swiftly into the night, the folds of the black velvet cloak sweeping out around her ankles.
Louisa watched her until she disappeared. When the widow was gone, she went back into the town house, closed and locked the door.
She tossed the envelope onto the hall table and went up the stairs, the woman’s words ringing in her ears. Who do you think you are?
It was not that the widow had used the same words that Lord Gavin had employed that fateful night last year. The phrase was common enough, after all. Who do you think you are? People said it all the time. What sparked the chill down her spine was the rage that had vibrated in the woman’s voice. It was as though she hated me. But how can that be? I’m sure I have never met her before in my life.