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«Seducing an Angel», Mary Balogh

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1

"WHAT I am going to do is find a man."

The speaker was Cassandra Belmont, the widowed Lady Paget. She was standing at the sitting room window of the house she had rented on Portman Street in London. The house had come fully furnished, but the furnishings as well as the curtains and carpets had seen better days.

They had probably seen better days even ten years ago. It was a shabby genteel place, well suited to Lady Paget's circumstances.

"To marry?" Alice Haytor, her lady's companion, asked, startled.

Cassandra watched with world-weary eyes and scornfully curved lips as a woman walked past in the street below, holding the hand of a little boy who clearly did not want either to have his hand held or to be proceeding along the street at such a trot. Everything in the lines of the woman's body spoke of irritation and impatience. Was she the child's mother or his nurse? Either way, it did not matter. The child's rebellion and misery were none of Cassandra's concern. She had enough concerns of her own.

"Absolutely not," she said in answer to the question. "Besides, I would have to find a fool."

"A fool?"

Cassandra smiled, though it was not a happy expression, and she did not turn to direct it at Alice. The woman and child had passed out of sight.

A gentleman was hurrying along the street in the opposite direction, frowning down at the ground in front of his feet. He was late for some appointment, at a guess, and doubtless thought his life depended upon getting where he was going on time. Perhaps he was right. Probably he was wrong.

"Only a fool would marry me," she explained. "No, it is definitely not for /marriage/ that I need a man, Alice."

"Oh, Cassie," her companion said, clearly troubled, "you surely cannot mean – " She did not complete the thought, or need to. There was only one thing Cassandra /could/ mean.

"Oh, but I do, Alice," Cassandra said, turning and regarding her with amused, hard, mocking eyes. Alice was gripping the arms of the chair on which she sat and leaning slightly forward as if she were about to stand up, though she did not do so. "Are you shocked?"

"Your purpose when we decided to come to London," Alice said, "was to look for employment, Cassie. We were /both/ going to look. And Mary too."

"It was not a realistic plan, though, was it?" Cassandra said, laughing without amusement. "Nobody wants to hire a housemaid-turned-cook who has a young daughter but is not and never has been married. And a letter of recommendation from me would do poor Mary no good at all, would it?

And – ah, forgive me, Alice – not many people will want to employ a governess who is more than forty years old when there are plenty of young women available. I am sorry to put that brutal truth into words, but youth is the modern god. You were an excellent governess to me when I was a child, and you have been an excellent companion and friend since I grew up. But your age is against you now, you know. As for me, well, unless I somehow disguise my identity, which would not work when it came time to offer letters of recommendation, I am doomed in the employment market, and in any other, for that matter. No one is going to want to hire an axe murderer in any capacity at all, I suppose."

"Cassie!" her former governess said, her hands flying up to cover her cheeks. "You must /not/ describe yourself in such a way. Not even in fun."

Cassandra was unaware that they had been having fun. She laughed anyway.

"People /are/ prone to exaggerate, are they not?" she said. "Even to fabricate? It is what half the known world believes of me, Alice – because it is /fun/ to believe such a preposterous thing. People will run screaming from me, I daresay, every time I step out of doors. It will have to be an /intrepid/ man that I find."

"Oh, Cassie," Alice said, tears swimming in her eyes. "I wish you would not – "

"I have tried making my fortune at the tables," Cassandra said, checking off the point on one finger as though there were more to follow. "I would have come away more destitute than I already was if I had not had a stroke of very modest luck with the final hand. I took my winnings and ran, having discovered that I do not have anything like the nerve to be a gambler, not to mention the skill. Besides, I was growing very hot indeed under my widow's veil, and several people were quite openly trying to guess who I was."

She tapped a second finger, but there was nothing further to add. She had not tried anything else, simply because there was nothing else to try. Except one thing.

"If I cannot pay the rent next week," she said, "we will all be out in the street, Alice, and I would hate that."

She laughed again.


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