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It Happened in the Highlands

By:May McGoldrick

It Happened in the Highlands
May McGoldrick

       Prologue


London, May 1802

"A child's birth should be a moment of joy, not misery." The words cut  through the busy hum of chatter in the dress shop, reaching the young  woman in the adjacent fitting room.

"This girl's origins are the most miserable, and the most abhorrent," a  second woman trumpeted. "Our society has no place for those with such  sordid beginnings, if you ask me."

The voices coming from beyond the curtained doorway cut Jo Pennington  deeply, pricking open the wound that had been bleeding for her entire  life. As she stared into the mirror, she had no doubt the two women knew  she was within earshot. They had intentionally dispensed with any  façade of courtesy. The volume and pitch of their conversation  underscored their words.

"Indeed," the first woman agreed. "I have it on the best authority that the girl's mother was a baseborn courtesan!"

The seamstress pinning the lace to Jo's sleeve was pretending not to hear, but her flushed face spoke of her embarrassment.

"‘Courtesan' is too fine a term," the second woman replied. "I know what  happened. I've tried to put the memory from me, but I was there. And I  can tell you the girl's mother was from the lowest dregs of existence. I  hesitate to use such disgusting expressions, but we must see the world  for what it is, even though it shocks those of us with refined  sensibilities. The woman was a slatternly doxy wallowing in a ditch. A  stale and shiftless vagrant adding to the world's burden. To use the  words of Dr. Johnson, she was ‘a decayed strumpet.'"

Jo squeezed her eyes shut. She knew only too well the identity of the  second woman, though she struck a different pose in the presence of any  member of the Pennington family. Lady Nithsdale had indeed been a guest  at Baronsford's Summer Ball when the rain-soaked Countess Aytoun carried  a hungry, mewling infant into the midst of society's elite, only hours  after Jo's mother died giving birth in the mud beneath the cart of a  kindly old woman.

But now Lady Nithsdale, loathsome and hypocritical, stood in the salon  adjoining the dressmaker's fitting room, loudly proclaiming all she  remembered and even more that she'd invented.

How quickly the clouds blotted out the sun!

Only an hour ago, Jo had been basking in the joys of lively Oxford  Street, with its large, bright shops filled with hats and bonnets,  slippers and shoes, ribbons and lace. Eyeing the latest fashions in the  company of her adoptive mother and sisters, she'd been so happy. While  her mind had been on her intended and on her upcoming wedding,  eleven-year-old Phoebe and eight-year-old Millie had been cheerfully  cajoling Lady Aytoun into the absolute necessity of having matching  dresses made for them from the colorful array of fabrics hanging in  graceful folds behind the fine, high windows.

And now this. Again. Ten days before the wedding.

Jo forced herself to focus on the image of her fiancé's handsome face.  On his dark blond hair, his smile and his contagious laughter. On his  broad chest and shoulders within his crisp naval officer's uniform. On  his large, warm hands holding hers in the darkness of a carriage. But  even that could not blot out the hurtful, penetrating sound of polished  malice.

"And yet I hear she's to marry a baronet's son."

The second woman barked out a derisive laugh. "Your ears have not  deceived you, my dear. She's to marry Wynne Melfort, a strapping navy  lieutenant with more than a few eligible young ladies competing for his  attention this Season."

"Melfort must be poor, I imagine. Second sons do need to make their way  in the world, and the Penningtons are as rich as Croesus."

"I assure you money is the only motivation for this match," Lady  Nithsdale asserted, the sneer in her voice clearly discernable. "The  Earl of Aytoun has transformed a pauper child into an heiress worth  twenty thousand pounds."

Waves of shame washed through her, leaving her cold and ill. The young  seamstress continued as quickly as she could, pinning the lace to the  silver-hued wedding dress. As Jo stared into the mirror, unshed tears  welled up, clouding her vision, and the delicately embroidered shells  and flowers blurred.                       
       
           



       

"I heard they managed to have her presented at court, and as Lady  Josephine Pennington," the first woman continued. "I recall a day when  money couldn't buy that."

Jo had been haunted by similar whispers since being presented in her  first introduction to London society. Today's assault was only different  in its openness and intensity.

Before this year, her parents had successfully deterred her from  attending the salons and ballrooms of the Season. Knowing that her  obscure parentage would surely be a topic for the gossipmongers of  London, they'd never wanted to expose Jo to society's cruelty. Year  after year, they'd persuaded her to stay at their estate in  Hertfordshire or at Baronsford, the family home in the Scottish Borders.  But at twenty-one years of age, with dreams of finding a husband, she'd  won their anxious approval.

And then, immediately, she found Wynne. Or, he found her. Perhaps his  initial attraction to her had been her dowry, but immediate sparks had  flown between them. She knew they both felt it. Within a month Jo  realized her weak-kneed reaction to the young naval officer was only  partly due to his good looks and the intense blue eyes. Their minds were  in harmony. Their trust complete. The ability to bare their souls,  reveal the long-buried aches, and celebrate the victories joined their  hearts as one. And then there was his protectiveness.

The memory of their walk in Kensington Gardens this past Saturday came  back to her. They'd been watching the military bands when Jo became  aware of the feminine whispers. The voices made no mention of names, but  it was perfectly clear that the topic of the conversation could only be  Jo Pennington.

Recognizing her discomfort, Wynne had grown angry. Hints and vague  innuendo and subsequent denial notwithstanding, he'd been ready to call  out one of the husbands. During the few weeks of their engagement, she'd  become more aware of his growing frustration. He was willing to  confront and challenge anyone in defense of her honor.

But she couldn't allow it. It was not in Jo's nature to let him make a  scene. Idle talk, she'd told herself over and over. It would go away.  The gossips would find a new target. She didn't need any additional  notice. And she'd rather die than have anything happen to him.

"Of course, what else should one expect of the Penningtons?" Lady  Nithsdale scoffed. "The earl and his wife are no strangers to scandal.  That family is quite fortunate that anyone in polite society recognizes  them at all. You've surely heard the shocking tales of their first  marriages."

"Tell me."

As the vile woman proceeded to expound on the Penningtons' family  history, Jo's lip quivered. The pain cutting through her was sharper  than anything the previous comments had inflicted. The lifetime of love  and kindness she'd received at the hands of her parents, the affection  she felt for her four brothers and sisters, as well as the extended  family, made her wish she had the strength to tear down those curtains  and claw the faces of the two women on the other side.

Her chin sank to her chest. Why couldn't they just go away?

"I'm not feeling well, I'm afraid," Jo said to the seamstress. "Pray, help me out of this and into my dress again."

"But, mistress, the modiste wishes to see you in it."

"I'll come back in a day or two to finish the fitting," Jo told her,  retrieving a coin from her reticule and putting it into the young  woman's hand.

A few moments later, she slipped through the curtained doorway. Refusing  to look in the direction of Lady Nithsdale and her confidante, Jo could  not escape hearing the snickers of the two women as she fled.

"Why, there she goes."

"Lady Josephine."

She didn't slow down as she passed a clutch of seamstresses standing  around a bolt of scarlet silk, and went out into the front room of the  shop. Since childhood Jo had been taught that life was hard enough and  that there was no place in it for such malevolence. But these women had  grown up in a different school. Lady Nithsdale and her lot had no souls.

"What's wrong, sweetheart?"

Jo looked up at her mother waiting in the front of the shop with her two  younger sisters. She'd promised to show them the dress once the lace  was pinned to the sleeves.                       
       
           



       

"Where is the dress?" Lady Aytoun didn't wait for an answer. "Something has happened to upset you."

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