Maid of Secrets
charity of the Queen,” Beatrice explained. A new wave of mortification washed over me. She didn’t need to put it quite like that.
    Smirking, Beatrice sidled closer to Rafe, and I stepped away. I had no designs on her conquest for the evening, even though my hand still burned from his touch and it felt like a flock of butterflies had taken flight inside my chest. For his part, Rafe wrapped one arm over Beatrice’s shoulders, the gesture entirely too intimate for their short acquaintance. I absently wiped my hand upon my skirt, and saw his quickly suppressed smirk. I hastened on.
    “Yes, well, I am not used to the rush and flurry of the revelers, and one man, I do not know who—I thought at first it was Lord Bensman, or perhaps Lord Wallace . . . ” And here I was making up names completely, but I needed time to think. “In truth I could not identify him. He came up behind me and placed one hand upon my neck, the other around my waist.”
    “Enterprising of him,” Rafe drawled, while Beatrice now stared at me, wide-eyed, no longer sure I wasn’t speaking the truth.
    “Where is your ruff?” she demanded, leaning closer. Rafe still had my ruff, blast him. “Tell me you didn’t lose it!”
    “I don’t know!” I shook my head hard. This was all wrong!
    “The lecherous lord must have pulled it away from you,” Rafe supplied, and I shot him a glare.
    “All I could think to do was flee,” I said. “I do not think the man knew what maid he’d caught, for he didn’t call my name, but in truth I was hurrying so fast, I doubt I’d have heard a baying hound.” I blinked at Beatrice, and her eyes narrowed again, her mouth turning down at the edges.
    “That lord has your ruff, Meg. How will you explain that?”
    “Or perhaps it’s not as bad as you think,” observed Rafe genially. “Perhaps the cur simply loosened it and it fell away as you ran?” I scowled at him. He was not helping matters, and even as he spoke, he curled his fingers to tease a lock of Beatrice’s hair next to her cheek, distracting her. It made my stomach twist. I don’t belong here, in this castle of lies and games. In the streets, at least, I knew my . . . my role! I reached for that idea. Held on to it.
    “I apologize again for interrupting you,” I said with just the right mix of embarrassment and distress. I was an actress , playing a role . “I stopped running as soon as I realized that I wasn’t being chased. I just wanted time away.”
    “And so you shall have it,” Beatrice said, her patience with this interlude at an end. “Rafe and I will leave you to your sulk.”
    That brought my head up again, but Beatrice was already tugging at the Spaniard. “Come, then, Rafe. I would like to finish our conversation, if we could.”
    “And I am glad to hear it.”
    Rafe stepped forward then, away from Beatrice, and I lifted my hand to ward him off. Instead he deftly caught it and lifted my fingers to his lips. “I will pray for a more satisfactory end to the evening for you, fair maid,” he murmured. “May you find all for which you search.”
    He brushed my fingertips with his soft lips, and it was all I could do not to yank my hand away. Instead I bobbed a half curtsy, because that’s apparently what I did when I was flustered, and by the time I’d risen, Rafe had moved back to Beatrice’s side.
    She, for her part, was staring daggers at me, a reaction that was wholly unwarranted. But as she pulled at him, Rafe went willingly enough, without a backward glance.
    I stood in the center of the Blue Room a moment more, cupping my fingers to my face.
    My cheeks were burning hot, of course. Stiff with embarrassment, I turned and moved to the doors to the terrace and pushed the nearest one open.
    The night air welcomed me, beckoning. Calling me home.
    I stepped outside, and something hard shifted in my chest. The Queen might have thought I didn’t know myself, but I did know this: I could not stay trapped inside these walls. I

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