I blinked several times, trying to get my eyes to focus. It felt like a thousand cobwebs had been sewn around my brain, dull white noise reverberating in my ears. My mouth felt as if it was filled with cotton and my lids stuck together like they were covered in plastic wrap.
Very slowly, my surroundings began to filter into my consciousness and I realized I was lying on my back on the cot in the servants’ room. Turning my head to the right, I saw that Catherine was no longer in the room with me. She must have gone off to search for Carter and his siblings without me.
What was happening to me? What were these bizarre visions? Consciously, I was aware the memories were not my own, and yet that felt so real—so familiar—that it was incredibly difficult to convince my brain otherwise. The emotions brought on by those reveries—the pride, the guilt, the longing, the joy—all seeped into me, soaking further and further into my mind with each new dream that it was becoming difficult to tell my own emotions from the hallucinated ones.
A sharp knock sounded at the door.
If that was Catherine, she wouldn’t have knocked. Though my limbs still felt weak and shaky, I struggled to my feet, smoothing the wrinkles in my skirt with unsteady hands. Swallowing past the strange lump in my throat, I called, “Come in.”
Mrs. Bell’s imposing figure stood at the threshold, her glasses flashing threateningly. Wrinkles in her forehead puckering as she looked about the room, she asked, “Where has your friend gone?”
“Um…I believe she went to check on the duchess while I took the extra moment to rest my feet. I am much worse with traveling than her,” I said, laughing. Did that sound believable? All this deceit was going to end up getting me killed.
“I didn’t see her on the stairs.”
I cleared my throat nervously. “She left almost as soon as Joanna dropped us off.”
She didn’t say anything for a moment, and I could tell that I hadn’t totally convinced her. Her suspicion was palpable and it felt like she could see the shimmer of sweat on my forehead and hear the pounding of my heart. Self consciously, I hid my trembling hands behind my back.
“Are you ill?” she asked, voice hard.
I quickly shook my head, forcing my wobbly legs to support my weight. “No, no, I am fine. I suppose I ought to join Catherine with the duchess. Thank you, Mrs. Bell.” Not knowing what else to do, I scurried past the housekeeper, holding my breath as I walked, sure that I would hear her following me as I went down the stairs.
It wasn’t until I was standing directly in front of the duchess’s room that I allowed my anxiety to shift from Mrs. Bell’s suspicion to the member of the royal family awaiting me on the other side of the door. I didn’t know where Catherine had got to but I didn’t see any other option. I was going to have to go in there and try to fool the cousin of the queen of England that I was her lady’s maid, regardless of the fact that she had never seen me before.
I took a deep breath to steel myself before lightly rapping on the door with my shaking fist.
“Come in,” called a pleasant woman’s voice.
I pushed open the door and stepped inside.
A beautiful woman in her mid-thirties spun around in her chair in front of a mirror, a gentle smile settling on her lips and her brown eyes shining warmly. She was an incredibly fragile and dainty woman, her skin smooth and pale and her back rim rod straight. She reminded me of a porcelain doll, every bit of her flawless yet easily breakable.
“Ah, you must be the maid traveling with Catherine,” she said, her voice light and airy. “You are the two the Springtons have allowed me to borrow while my maids are trapped in a storm, yes?”
“Yes, Your…” What did you call a duchess? She was higher than a lady but she wasn’t a queen—
She laughed, the sound like soft tinkling bells. “How old are you, my dear?”
I blinked. Was this a test? God, I was so truly out of my realm here. I’m sure I looked like a cornered animal, eyes rolling around and feet shuffling.
“You needn’t worry,” she said, turning back to her mirror, picking up a bottle of lotion and rubbing it on her unblemished arms. “I tend to think of titles more as instruments of suffocation than respect. Perhaps when we are in public you will refer to me as ‘Your Grace’, but alone you might simply call me Genevieve?”
A relieved smile broke across my face and I nodded. “That sounds like a great idea.”
“Wouldn’t you agree, Henry?” she asked, her eyes looking somewhere off to the side in the mirror.
I hadn’t even realized there was someone else in the room until that exact moment. But when I glanced over at who she was speaking with, I froze. The man was staring at me from the other side of the massive bed, recognition enveloping his face the longer his brown eyes were on me. There was no need for an introduction from the duchess, yet she gave one anyway.
“Henry, I would like you to meet—I am sorry, dear, I don’t believe you’ve told me your name.”
“Elizabeth, Your Grace.” My heart was trying to shove its way out of my chest and my hands were trembling so badly, I had to clasp them behind my back.
“Elizabeth. Elizabeth, this is my second cousin, Henry Gallagher, Sixth Earl of Sulhall.”
In other words, my father.
I dropped into the sloppiest curtsey the world had ever seen, lowering my eyes to the ground as my voice came out very small. “It is an honor, Your Lordship.”
“Genevieve, this woman is an imposter.”
My heart stopped trying to fight its way out of my chest, choosing instead to plummet to my feet. I lifted my eyes at the duchess’s surprised gasp.
“I beg your pardon?”
“This woman is not a maid.”
“Then who is she?” The duchess’s kind eyes turned to me with curiosity instead of the anger or fear I would have expected.
Lord Gallagher opened and closed his mouth several times, trying to figure out what to say without somehow implicating himself. After all, it was his daughter he was accusing. “She is a criminal.”
The Duchess’s eyes flew wide as she looked back at my shaking form. “A criminal?”
“Yes, I’ve seen her face posted alongside that of Captain Caspian Rogers.”
“That is the captain whom that young boy claimed butchered his father.”
“Yes, Your Grace.”
Forty thoughts at any given second. And yet, this was the second time my mind seemed to be completely vacant. All I could do was stand and gaze back and forth in terror at my father and the duchess.
She didn’t say anything immediately, her eyes narrowing slightly as she studied me. I would have expected her to jump from her seat and scream at the top of her lungs. Yet, she hardly moved.
I dropped my eyes to the ground in defeat as Lord Gallagher started for the door. He spoke gruffly. “Where she is, the pirate must not be far behind. I shall call for the constable—“
“Henry, do you mean to suggest I am not able to tell the difference between a skilled lady’s maid and a notorious pirate’s whore?”
My head shot back up and I stared in surprise at the duchess.
Lord Gallagher paused with his hand on the knob. “Your Grace—“
The Duchess rose from her seat and crossed the room to her armoire, parting the racks of dresses, completely unconcerned by Lord Gallagher’s warning. “I know you are simply trying to be a good friend, but I do fear you have offended Elizabeth.”
I bit my lip to stop a smile from spreading over my face at Lord Gallagher’s stunned expression, his lips flapping uselessly. “I didn’t—but surely—she is dangerous, Genevieve!”
The Duchess reached deeper into the armoire, disappearing further into the gaping wooden beast of clothing, her voice muffled as she said, “I must cut our meeting short as I am entirely too preoccupied with dressing for this evening’s dinner. I am sure your wife is waiting for you downstairs. You may apologize to Elizabeth and then you may leave.”
He blinked several times, turning to me. I’m sure my amused eyes were doing little to put me back in my father’s good graces, but at that moment I didn’t care enough to school my features. Instead, I let him see the clear triumph in them. His nose flared and his hands fisted at his sides. His reluctance was like a chord around his waist as he bent over to bow, making the movement look like it took a massive amount of effort. He ground his words out past his clenched teeth. “I am sorry, Elizabeth. I did not mean to be impertinent.”
I curtsied as best I could, a small grin slipping across my lips. “Thank you, milord.”
He took a deep breath, his face turning an angry red as he glared at me once more and spun around.
I coughed to cover my laugh as I watched the door slam behind him. “Your Grace, I greatly appreciate—"
“I did not lie to him,” she said. The sound of metal whistling reached my ears a moment before I felt the sting of a cold sword against my throat. My head snapped toward the duchess as she aimed the weapon at me. My mind couldn’t compute the fragile woman who had been sitting in front of her vanity with the fierce one threatening me with a blade. “I am perfectly capable of spotting a skilled lady’s maid, and that, my dear, is not who you are. Which begs the question,” she pushed the blade harder against my skin and I winced, “who are you?”